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Kenyans Vote on Landmark Charter

Kenyan voters turned up in large numbers on Monday to vote in a national referendum that will either approve or reject a proposed new constitution.

Various polling centers in the constituencies recorded high turnout with eagerness by the voters to cast their votes with others turned up long before the stations were open.

"I was here by 5 AM (02:00 GMT) to vote before I could embark on other issues. I am happy to see other people turn out in large number," a voter said.

Security was tight with most of the centers having at least four policemen manning them.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said there has been no case of violence reported except a few isolated complaints on voter's card irregularities occasioned by names missing in the registers, but were handled by the electoral commission on the ground.

Mutua told reporters that the atmosphere at the polls was calm.

"The reports we are getting are that people have turned out in large numbers. So far the referendum has been very peaceful," he said.

Mutua said the government had beefed up security across the east African nation, but critics of the draft said officials only targeted areas that are traditionally opposition strongholds.

Confusion also reigned at a polling station in Nairobi station after a man listed as dead, surfaced to demand his turn in casting his vote.

"I am not dead as you can see for yourselves. These are my identification papers so let's get on with it I need to vote now," said Ahmed Mohammed Ali.

"We expect the Electoral Commission to provide answers because some of these people voted here in the last general election and are now being told their names are missing," John Okello, 33, voter, said.

The electoral body said they had received thousands of reports of voters being turned away either because their name did not appear on the list or they had misplaced their voter identification cards.

Security across Kenya has been increased while the voting takes place, with some 50,000 police drafted onto the streets to monitor the plebiscite which is being monitored by over 100 observers.

The document, if ratified, would replace the country's basic law, which came into force when the east African nation gained independence from Britain in 1963.

Long queues formed at polling stations in Nairobi soon after they opened, and voters waited patiently to cast their ballots.

Acrimony and violence had marred the campaign leading up to the vote which resulted in the death of nine people in two incidents when police opened fire after campaign rallies turned violent.

Analysts say the campaign could be a defining moment for President Mwai Kibaki's ruling National Rainbow Coalition (NARC).

The coalition won in 2002 on a wave of euphoria after 24 years of rule by strong man former president Daniel arap Moi, but now is in a precarious position because of growing public dissatisfaction.

The debate on Kenya's draft constitution has split Kibaki's administration.

The most obvious split has been within Kibaki's shaky coalition, with at least seven ministers joining ranks with the opposition to campaign for a No vote, while the president and his supporters promote the Yes vote.

Opponents say the draft constitution would do little to curb the all-powerful presidency or alter the system of government.

It is based in part on a version drawn up by pro-Kibaki MPs, and an earlier draft approved at a national constitutional conference.

The result has caused critics to accuse the government of reneging on promises to create a powerful prime minister's office, reduce presidential powers and decentralize government.

The new draft does cater for a prime minister, but one who will be accountable to the president" and leader of government business in parliament, rather than head of government. There are also complaints the proposed devolution of power to districts does not go far enough.

Results from the referendum vote are expected on Tuesday, but counting of ballots will start at polling stations once voting ends at 14:00 GMT.

President Kibaki who voted in central Kenya expressed optimism his government will emerge victorious.

"Today is an important day. We don't have much to say because votes will be counted tomorrow (Tuesday) and we are sure that it will be okay," Kibaki said after voting.

"Some people had brought malice but you are the ones who will show the right direction. Make sure you vote today because your voter will count at the end of the day," he added.

Vice President Moody Awori also exuded confidence that the Yes camp would carry the day.

He expressed satisfaction at the peaceful manner in which voters in the constituency and Kenya in general were conducting themselves at the polls.

Awori expressed hope that though the exercise had started slowly, it would pick up as the day progresses.

He at the same time said it was not necessary for Kenyans to take to the streets or gather publicly to celebrate or protest the outcome of the polls, saying Kenyans should avoid any situations that could provoke violence or threaten the peace.

"If you win, just celebrate with your family, and similarly if you lose accept the outcome calmly and focus on tomorrow," the vice president said after voting.

Roads Minister Raila Odinga cast his ballot early Monday, after which he announced that his Orange team would accept the people's verdict.

He said that he was optimistic that Kenyans would vote out the Wako draft as it does not represent their views.

"I am happy with the voter turnout and we expect to win by 80 percent. I am also confident that we will win by 30 percent margin against the Yes side", Odinga said at a local polling station in his constituency.

"I urge all Kenyans to exercise their right and demonstrate to the world that we people can be peaceful in a democratic process," he told reporters.

His sentiments were echoed by his Orange camp colleague Uhuru Kenyatta who cast his ballot at his Gatundu South Constituency.

Former president Daniel arap Moi, who cast his ballot after arriving at the polling station when it opened, said he was greatly distressed by the turn the nation had taken.

Moi, who declared his opposition to the draft soon after it was published on grounds that it would divide the nation, retained the same stand after voting.

"I am very sad to see nationalism has sunk down the pit," he said while adding that national unity should be upheld. 

(Xinhua News Agency November 22, 2005)

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