Kenya unveils constitution to avoid vote violence

AP News
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Posted: Nov 19, 2009 10:57 AM

A government-appointed panel this week unveiled a draft constitution that is part of wide-ranging efforts to avoid a repeat of political violence that saw more than 1,000 people killed after Kenya's December 2007 presidential elections.

The proposed constitution could help eliminate political parties based on ethnicity, a step that would likely reduce the chances of future election violence, a political analyst said.

The proposed charter will now go through several stages that could see Kenyans vote on a referendum next year for the second time in five years.

The 2005 referendum on a previous draft constitution was seen as a precursor to the ethnic tensions that exploded after the 2007 election. During that referendum, President Mwai Kibaki campaigned for the 'yes' vote and several Cabinet ministers campaigned against him, including Raila Odinga, the country's current prime minister.

About 57 percent voted against the 2005 draft constitution. Kibaki fired ministers who campaigned against the measure, and Odinga became his biggest rival.

Kenyan political analyst Duncan Okello said he does not see the 2010 referendum dividing Kenyans the way the previous one did because politicians have softened their closely held positions on a strong president versus a strong prime minister.

"There will be a contestation of ideas, but not a tug of war," said Okello, the regional director of the Society for International Development. "The absolute positions that we saw the last time (in 2005), I don't think we shall see them."

Kibaki and Odinga agreed to form the draft constitution committee of Kenyan and other African legal experts that came up with the draft as part of a power sharing deal they signed in February 2008. For decades, Kenyans have clamored for constitutional change, particularly to the enormous powers enjoyed by the president.

The draft released Tuesday proposes splitting those powers between a president and prime minister similar to the French political system. It also proposes reintroducing a Senate in Kenya that would vet key public appointments. The country last had a Senate in the 1960s.

Okello says the draft will force politicians who seek national office to develop parties with countrywide support, something they have only paid lip service recently. Part of the violence between December 2007 and February 2008 was fueled by ethnic tensions, with citizens killing others of different ethnic groups.

Kenyan leaders usually use their ethnic group as a base of support and then seek alliances with people who are perceived to have the support of their ethnic group, rather than campaign directly to all potential voters.

"It is very clear that the power of government, if you wish, will reside in the premiership. For you to be a premier you will have to have a political party that has nationwide presence," Okello said of the draft constitution. "That frowns upon, I think, ethnic-based parties. It may kill ethnic-based parties."

Other changes the draft proposes include introducing for the first time a Supreme Court, having elected regional governments and allowing dual citizenship.