Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki suffered his first political setback late Tuesday when his government lost the crucial post of Speaker of the National Assembly in a close vote reflecting deep and bitter political divisions.
The opposition Orange Democratic Party (ODM) backed candidate Kenneth Marende won by just four votes after three tense rounds and following heated exchanges over ballot procedure.
The opposition, which says the presidential vote was rigged, feared the ballot for the Speaker would be rigged too. The ODM erupted in celebration as it was announced Marende had won by 105 votes to Francis Ole Kaparo's 101.
He was immediately sworn in and said he was "humbled and deeply touched by the confidence" that the legislators have actively demonstrated in him.
Analysts say the vote highlights the difficulties Kibaki will have in trying to govern after his Dec. 27 disputed win.
The post of deputy Speaker also went to the opposition candidate Farah Maalim who garnered 110 against government-backed candidate Gitobu Imanyara who got 94 votes.
The swearing in of newly elected lawmakers was delayed as the parliament debated whom to swear allegiance to.
The opposition legislator, James Orengo told, the parliament that lawmakers only need to swear allegiance to the Republic of Kenya and not the president as Mwai Kibaki was not dully elected.
Rising on a point of order, Orengo asked the newly elected speaker to rule on the matter before the lawmakers were sworn in.
However, the government side said the matter raised by the opposition was unconstitutional because the newly elected lawmakers are required to the institution of the presidency and not President Kibaki.
Emotions soared high as both sides tried to sway the Speaker to their side in a game of wits with lawyers from both sides presenting arguments both for and against the method.
It took the intervention of government chief legal advisor Amos Wako who moved in to clarify the method to be used to elect a Speaker.
After two hours of debate, the legislators finally began taking their oaths which run past midnight.
Earlier Tuesday, lawmakers argued over whether the Speaker vote should be conducted by open or secret ballot. Members of the opposition ODM demanded a public vote, saying secret ballots allowed the government to "steal last month's presidential election."
The dispute began when lawmakers from the opposition ODM demanded that votes for the Speaker be made public.
One opposition leader, William Ruto, said secret ballot procedures allowed the government to steal last month's election.
A parliament clerk said house rules called for a secret ballot, while backers of the president accused the opposition of seeking to intimidate other parliament members.
The Tuesday's session marked the first time President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga have been in the same room since the election dispute.
The arguing lasted for about an hour before lawmakers agreed the vote should be secret.
Security was heavy for Tuesday's session, the first time lawmakers have met since the disputed election. Police are trying to prevent a renewal of post-election violence that has killed more than 600 people.
Kenya's electoral commission declared Kibaki the winner of the Dec. 27 election after a vote counting process that international observers say was "seriously flawed."
Opposition leader, the 62-year-old politician insists he won the vote, and the ODM has called on the president to resign or share power.
Opposition lawmakers had originally planned to sit on government benches but in the event, Odinga took the seat reserved for the leader of the opposition.
His party lawmakers declined to stand up as Kibaki entered the chamber, an indication that they do not regard his election as valid.
The ODM is the largest party in parliament, though it does not have an absolute majority. Odinga refused to swear his allegiance to the president, but doing so to the Republic of Kenya.
The development comes as the country braces for three days of nationwide opposition protests set to begin Wednesday in defiance of a government ban on political rallies.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was due to take over international mediation efforts Tuesday. However, Annan's office said the he is "sick with the flu and has postponed the mission for a few days."
"On his way to the airport in Geneva this morning, former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan was taken ill with a severe flu. On advice of doctors he has postponed his mission to Nairobi for a few days," the UN office said in a statement.
Annan had been expected to arrive in the Kenyan capital on Tuesday to lead a panel of senior African political figures in the latest attempt to resolve the crisis in Kenya.
The former UN chief "very much regrets this delay," but he is in touch with other members of the Panel of Eminent African Personalities and they will proceed to Nairobi as soon as feasible, according to the statement.
More than 600 people have been killed in Kenya and 255,000 made homeless in violence since last month's presidential elections.
Annan, who is leading a panel of African mediators attempting to resolve the crisis, has meanwhile appealed to all sides for restraint.
In a statement issued on Friday, Annan called on all Kenyan leaders, government as well as the opposition in the country to avoid any measures or steps that would further compromise, the search for an amicable solution to the country's crisis.
(Xinhua News Agency January 16, 2008)