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Why Kenya's referendum is important

By David McKenzie, CNN
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Kenya's crucial vote
  • Kenyans vote Wednesday on new constitution that would change government dramatically
  • Constitution would weaken president's power, create two-chamber parliament
  • Supporters say changes are a vital step in reforming archaic political system
  • Opponents, including church, say new constitution has many flaws

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- Kenyans go to the polls Wednesday in a referendum that could that could make major political and social changes to East Africa's largest economy. CNN's David McKenzie answers some fundamental questions about the referendum and why it is worth following closely.

Q: Why is Kenya having a referendum?

A: Kenya is voting in a crucial referendum this week on a proposed new constitution. The last time Kenya conducted a national vote, the country was thrown into chaos. A disputed presidential election in December 2007 led to over 1000 deaths and hundreds of thousands pushed off their land.

Since the signing of a national peace accord that created a power-sharing arrangement, Kenya has been relatively stable. But the accord set up a temporary structure that called for many reforms -- including a new constitution.

Q: What are the key issues in the proposed constitution?

A: If implemented, the new constitution would make radical changes to the structure of Kenya's government. It would transfer some power from the presidency; it would create a two-tier parliamentary structure, in some ways similar to the U.S. system of a Congress and Senate; and it would call for major changes in the judiciary. Put more simply, it would remove power from a powerful presidency and create a more decentralized political system. The constitution also brings in a Bill of Rights, allows dual citizenship for Kenyans -- sure to be popular with Kenya's large and loyal diaspora community -- and allows for land reform.

Q: Why should people in other countries pay attention to this vote?

A: Kenya is East Africa's largest economy and a crucial trade route into the rest of Africa. It provides an important buffer of stability against the volatile North (Somalia) and the politically tense West (Sudan). Many analysts say Kenya hasn't reached its potential as a country and that with wise reforms, it could emerge as a true giant of the continent.

While the government has beefed up security for this vote by deploying thousands of extra security forces to potential hot spots, the international community is watching closely and hoping the country does not see a repeat of the violence that followed the last major election in Kenya.

Q: What is the "Yes" camp saying?

A: The "Yes" camp, which includes most of Kenya's political leadership, says that the constitution is a vital step in reforming Kenya's archaic political system and will help end corruption and redress inequalities. "The vote itself is aimed at transforming the Kenyan society," Prime Minister Raila Odinga told CNN. "We are reconstructing the architecture of our country that will come up with new structures of governance. We are creating a second republic with this referendum."

The "Yes" team has made a lot of promises about the fundamental changes that the constitution could mean for Kenyans. But most analysts believe that a new constitution will only be as good as the leaders who will be chosen to implement it, and that real change will only happen after Kenya's next election, in 2012. "It is important for Kenyans to think beyond the constitution and choose leaders that will enable this constitution to realize its aspirations," said political scientist Duncan Okello.

Q: What is the "No" camp saying?

A: The "No" camp mostly agrees that it wants a new constitution -- just not this one. The "No" campaigners are led by disgruntled politicians, who say that their constituents are not being heard with the proposed constitution.

A major force calling for rejection is the church. Kenya is a largely Christian country with a strong multidenominational following. Church leaders have taken offense at two main parts of the constitution. They say that the constitution creates loopholes that will allow women to have abortion "on demand," though the constitution does state that life begins at conception. Religious leaders have also taken issue with the constitution explicitly codifying Islamic courts for Kenya's significant Muslim population.

"There are so many faults in the constitution that the more you read it, the more faults you find," said Bishop Mark Kariuki. "We don't think it's right to pass a constitution that is so faulty that it will bring problems in the nation after it is passed."

Q: How is the international community viewing this vote?

A: Analysts believe that most Western diplomats are quietly hoping for a yes vote. And some contend that they haven't been quiet at all. U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has been roundly criticized by "No" politicians and church leaders for attending "Yes" rallies and seemingly supporting the "Yes" vote.

The Obama administration has made no secret of its support for reform in Kenya, but officials maintain that they aren't supporting a specific vote. "The U.S. supports the process, not the outcome. We have been very careful not to express our views as to which way the people of Kenya should vote," said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Q: Which side will win?

A: Most polls suggest that the constitution will pass. But political analysts believe that either outcome is possible. Many of those supporting a "Yes" vote are looking not just for a win, but a win by a large margin, so they can have a strong mandate to move forward with reforms. A win by just a small margin could provide the "No" camp with a moral victory, allowing it to stall implementation of the constitution.