NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyans voted peacefully in a referendum on a new constitution on Wednesday, a poll that could reshape the politics of east Africa’s largest economy after years of disputed, violent elections.
The constitutional changes are seen as important to avoid a repeat of the post-election tribal bloodshed in early 2008 that killed 1,300 people and took the country of about 40 million people to the brink of anarchy.
They address the corruption, political patronage, land grabbing and tribalism which have plagued Kenya since it won independence in 1963. The changes allow for greater checks on presidential powers, more devolution to grassroots administrations and an increase in civil liberties.
“I have come to vote for the new constitution which will guarantee me security in my farm where I was displaced in 2007 during clashes,” said Milkah Gathoni Njoroge, who was born in 1919. “I am living with my family in Nakuru town. If the constitution passes, I will return to my land.”
Kenya’s 27,689 Polling stations in 210 constituencies closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) with no major incidents reported.
Some 12.5 million people were registered to vote. Results will be transmitted to the electoral authority’s tallying centre in Nairobi. Initial indications are expected within a few hours and the final results likely at some point on Thursday.
There were long queues at polling stations across the country, especially in the Rift Valley centres of Eldoret and Nakuru that were at the epicentre of the post-election violence,
Turnout was reportedly low, however, in the poor, arid northeastern region of the country.
Most Kenyans were expected to vote in favour of the new constitution, according to surveys. If the law fails, Kenya will revert to the current constitution bequeathed by former colonial power Britain.
William Ruto, a cabinet minister based in the Rift Valley who is leading “No” campaigners angry with clauses related to land ownership, said he would accept the outcome.
“This is a historic moment in our country and I’m sure Kenyans will make the right decision,” he told reporters in his constituency. “Everyone has an obligation to accept the decision of the people of Kenya.”
A previous attempt to change the constitution through a referendum in 2005 failed. To be adopted, the law requires 50 percent plus one vote of the ballot cast nationally and at least 25 percent of the votes in five of Kenya’s eight provinces.
Kenyan shares rallied strongly for the fifth straight session on Tuesday to hit their highest level since September 3 2008, driven by expectations the law will be adopted, while the shilling rose against the dollar.
Markets were closed for the voting on Wednesday. Traders and analysts say investors would take great confidence from the peaceful passage of the constitutional changes into law.
Kenya, a country that borders Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, is the fourth largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa, Nigeria and Angola.
Throughout the capital Nairobi, long queues snaked away from polling stations as voting kicked off at 6 a.m.
At the sprawling Kibera slum in Nairobi, another hotspot of post-election violence, voting was peaceful three hours after stations opened. There were long lines with many elderly women being helped by officials to the front of the queues.
In Eldoret and Nakuru, some voters said they hoped the referendum would usher in a new era of peaceful democracy and pledged an end to violence between Kikuyu and Kalenjin — the two tribes that have dominated politics since independence.
“We want Kenya to be peaceful, that’s our major concern. We don’t want problems like in 2008. Voting is peaceful. If I am standing next to a Kikuyu, he is my brother. We are fine,” said Ronald Cheruiyot, a herbalist voting in Eldoret.
The country’s electoral authority said on Tuesday the process would be more transparent than in the 2007 election, when allegations the poll was rigged in favour of President Mwai Kibaki led to the bloodletting.
The authority has distributed mobile phones and broadband modems to polling stations throughout the country that can only communicate with the tallying centre in a bid to curb rigging at the constituency level seen at past elections.
Philippe de Pontet, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a research note that there appeared to be broad support for the new constitution.
“The ‘No’ camp’s efforts to tie the document to controversial social such as abortion have mobilised opposition from some church groups, but the ‘Yes’ camp has a broader regional and ethnic coalition,” he said.
“Voter approval of a new constitution in a national referendum on 4 August will provide a short-term boost for the coalition government.”
The new charter was a key provision in the power-sharing deal struck between then-rivals Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to end the violence that followed the election in 2007.