Voters cast ballots on new constitution

Enthusiastic voters, many wrapped in colorful traditional blankets, waited for hours Wednesday 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.

Kenyan election officials help a voter to cast her vote during the referendum for Kenya constitution in the Kibera slum

Kenyan election officials help a voter to cast her vote during the referendum for Kenya constitution in the Kibera slum

TIMBOROA, Kenya — Enthusiastic voters, many wrapped in colorful traditional blankets, waited for hours Wednesday 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 one Nairobi site saw dozens of Kenyans who had not yet voted force their way in after authorities tried to shut it 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, a 23-year-old student who waited six hours to vote in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru.

Returns from about 30 per cent of the polling stations showed the “yes” camp taking an early lead: About 64 per cent of the votes cast, compared to 36 per cent for the “no” camp, according to Kenya’s election commissioner Ahmed Issack Hassan.

Pre-vote polls had showed the referendum would likely pass.

“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, a 43-year-old 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.