Kenyans wait hours to cast their vote
Turnout is heavy in push to create new constitution
TIMBOROA, Kenya — Enthusiastic voters, many wrapped in colorful traditional blankets, waited for hours yesterday to cast ballots on a new constitution that could spell a new era for Kenya — curtailing the president’s enormous powers and giving citizens a bill of rights.
With memories fresh of the ethnically charged violence that left more than 1,000 people dead following the disputed 2007 election, police were deployed en masse across the country.
Voters overwhelmed polling stations in some locations, and at one Nairobi site dozens of Kenyans who had not voted forced their way in after authorities tried to shut down at the official 5 p.m. closing time.
Despite that after-hours push, officials reported few problems and no violence countrywide.
Enthusiasm for the new constitution appeared high. In the Nairobi slum of Kibera, lines formed as early as 3 a.m., while voters at some Rift Valley sites waited five hours or more.
“Since we got independence from Britain, our country has not run smoothly. The current constitution has not been used well, but we didn’t write that one, and we are writing this one,’’ declared Paul Wahome, 23, a student who waited six hours to vote in Nakuru.
Returns from about 30 percent of the polling stations showed the “yes’’ camp taking an early lead: about 64 percent, vs. 36 percent for the “no’’ camp.
Polls had showed the referendum would probably pass, and reporters had difficulty finding Kenyans who said they voted against it.
“It’s a struggle between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and the haves are trying to maintain the status quo,’’ said James Otumba, 43, a teacher who was shot in the chest during the 2007-08 violence.
“This is a revolution taking place in this country. . . . This constitution is one thing that can actually reconcile the nation,’’ he said.
The international community, and particularly the United States, has urged Kenyans to pass the constitution, even as the draft raised emotions over land rights, abortion, and Muslim family courts. Kenya’s current constitution, drawn prior to Kenya’s 1963 independence from Britain, grants the president sweeping powers.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters yesterday that the Obama administration was gratified that a large number of Kenyans voted and that the vote was generally peaceful.
“This is an important step toward strengthening democratic institutions in Kenya,’’ Crowley said.
If passed, the new constitution will dramatically cut back the president’s powers by setting up an American-style system of checks and balances and paving the way for much-needed land reform.