NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyans passed a new constitution in a peaceful referendum that could reshape the political landscape of east Africa’s largest economy, official results showed on Thursday.
Greater checks on presidential powers were among changes voted through in Wednesday’s referendum, which came two years after allegations over vote-rigging in a presidential election ignited violence that killed 1,300 people.
The new legal framework addresses the corruption, political patronage, land-grabbing and tribalism which have plagued Kenya since it won independence from Britain in 1963.
The referendum win could help Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s presidential bid in the next elections in 2012, analysts said. President Mwai Kibaki cannot stand again as he has already served two terms.
Final official referendum results showed 67 percent of voters had cast their ballots in favour of the law, and 30 percent voted “No”, Kenya’s electoral authority said.
To be adopted, the law required 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama, America’s first black president whose father was Kenyan, described the referendum as a “significant step for Kenya’s democracy” in a statement issued by the White House.
The Kenyan “Yes” camp earlier claimed victory in the capital in front of a sea of supporters blowing vuvuzelas, chanting and dancing. Kibaki called the victory “a renewal for the nation”.
“The historic journey that started more than 20 years ago has come to a happy end,” Kibaki said, flanked by Odinga and cabinet ministers who backed the new law.
“We shall soon announce the date of promulgation of the new constitution,” said Kibaki, who promised to work with those who opposed the law in realising the dream of Kenya’s founders.
Higher Education Minister William Ruto, leader of the “No” side, conceded defeat before Kibaki spoke, but quickly went on the offensive saying 60 percent of registered voters had either abstained or said “No”, so there should be immediate consultations with the “Yes” side on amendments to the new law.
“(The) majority had their way, we had our say. Now that Kenyans have endorsed that we pass, we are now proposing immediate consultations,” Ruto told a news conference.
“We want to be part of taking Kenya to the future.”
The referendum, hailed by election observers as transparent, boosted the Kenyan shilling against the dollar and extended a stock market rally.
“Confidence was a key requirement for economic turnaround, and the peaceful passage of the vote should do a lot to underscore that,” said Razia Khan, Africa economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
Kenya, which borders Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, is the fourth largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa, Nigeria and Angola.
After years of marred elections, the charter is seen as an important step in avoiding a repeat of the post-election tribal bloodshed in early 2008 that pushed the country of about 40 million people to the brink of anarchy.
The new charter was a key provision in the power-sharing deal struck between then-rivals Kibaki and Odinga to end the violence after the 2007 election. It permits more devolution to grassroots administrations and an increase in civil liberties.
Ruto’s ambition to run for president in 2012 was bolstered by a big win in the Rift Valley for the “No” camp, despite defeat overall.
Ruto, a cabinet minister based in Kenya’s largest province, had championed the cause of voters who were angry about clauses related to land ownership and he said these contentious issues must now be addressed by the government.
“We urge the winners and losers to come together for the sake of the country so we can concentrate on development issues,” said Jane Njeri, who is living in a camp in Gilgil for Kenyans displaced by past electoral violence.
In the fertile Rift Valley, the “No” camp’s stronghold and the epicentre of the violence after the last election, some said Kenyans should now unite and reject divisive politics.
“The real issue lies with our leaders. Reform is not only on paper but I doubt the leaders can unite. They protect their ill-gotten wealth by pitting communities against each other,” said Tom Murgor, 55, a civil engineer and Kalenjin in Eldoret.
The fighting in the Rift Valley after the last election essentially pitted ethnic Kalenjins supporting the opposition against the Kikuyu tribe of Kibaki.
No major incidents were reported on Wednesday at Kenya’s 27,689 polling stations. Some 12.5 million people were registered to vote.
Ahmed Hassan, chairman of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, said the official result was based on votes cast in 207 of the country’s 210 constituencies, but the law empowered him to declare the results as final if the tallies were unlikely to make a difference in the overall outcome.
With 207 of 210 constituencies counted, the “Yes” side had 5,954,767 votes and 2,687,193 voted “No” out of more than 8 million voters, official results showed.