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New constitution likely to be defeated in Kenya, early returns show

NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenyans appeared to have rejected a proposed new constitution Monday, capping a bitter and often violent election campaign that stirred up political and tribal rivalries and unsettled one of Africa's most stable countries.

Final results weren't expected until Tuesday, but early returns showed the constitution losing by 65 to 35 percent, with 600,000 votes counted. There are 11 million registered voters in Kenya and there was no word yet on turnout, though officials said it was high.

The constitution's failure would represent a stinging defeat for President Mwai Kibaki, who'd promised in his 2002 election campaign to deliver a new constitution and whose re-election chances in 2007 now appear to be weakened.

But the biggest casualty could be political stability in Kenya, the West's most reliable ally in volatile East Africa. On both sides of the debate, politicians accused each other of inciting tribal divisions, and several rallies disintegrated into riots in which a total of nine people were killed, including four boys.

Over the weekend, Kibaki and his opponents appealed for calm, and the campaign's final hours were largely peaceful. On Monday, 50,000 security officers kept watch over the country's 19,000 polling stations.

The constitution was drafted to replace a colonial-era charter that was written in 1963 without input from Kenyan citizens when the country won its independence from Britain. Nearly everyone agrees it's outmoded. But the proposed replacement sparked controversy over provisions that would concentrate more power in the presidency and enshrine women's rights and freedom of speech.

Some members of Kibaki's Cabinet contended that a strong presidency would take the country back to the authoritarian era of Daniel Arap Moi, Kibaki's predecessor, who ruled for 24 years.

The document also divided the country ethnically, between Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe—Kenya's largest—and the Luo tribe of Raila Odinga, the country's roads minister and a likely rival to Kibaki for the presidency.

"This referendum is not about the constitution at all," Maina Kiai, the chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, wrote in the Nation newspaper. "It is about power and ethnic politics."

The campaign came to be known for its symbols: bananas for supporters of the constitution, oranges for opponents. Selected by election officials as an aid for the 15 percent of Kenyans who are illiterate, bananas and oranges popped up everywhere in the country—on T-shirts, radio advertisements and jokes traded via cell phones—and often seemed to eclipse the issues.

During the campaign, Kibaki was dogged by criticism of a series of moves that opponents charged were political ploys. Last month he transferred ownership of the world-renowned Amboseli National Park to the Maasai people, whose leaders later said they'd support the constitution. He also announced pay raises for 3,000 local officials.

On Monday, voters said they were tired of the campaign and hoped their leaders would restore unity.

"We have been caught in a tug-of-war," said Janet Karanja, 50, a government clerk who voted in a church courtyard in downtown Nairobi. "This campaign should have been about all Kenyans. It is time to be united now."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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