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Kenyans vote in referendum for new constitution

By David McKenzie, CNN
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Kenya's crucial vote
  • NEW: No reports of violence so far as vote counting begins
  • Proponents of the draft say it checks current excessive powers of the president
  • Opponents say the draft could allow abortion and privileges one religion over another
  • The last vote sparked violence that left more than 1,000 people dead

Eldoret, Kenya (CNN) -- Kenyans went to the polls Wednesday in a historic referendum on a new constitution that could be the first step toward a truly functioning government for East Africa's largest economy.

Before dawn, long lines already had formed at the main polling station in Uasin Gishu Primary School in Eldoret. Located in the country's restive Rift Valley, it was the scene of some of the worst violence after the last election that left more than 1,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

There have been no reports of violence so far.

The numbers at the Eldoret location thinned considerably throughout the day after hundreds converged on the center at the start of the day. But there was a steady trickle of voters, such as small businessman Samuel Ngure, who said he wants "a new Kenya." Another, Vivian Mutai, a first-year university student, said she wants to cast a ballot to be "part of history."

Steven Maina, a fruit seller, closed down his business to come and vote.

"I don't see it as a loss because I'll gain," Maina told CNN. "For example I had to move my family from the farm to town during this voting period for fear of violence. But if the constitution passes, I'll never need to do that again."

Polling at the vast majority of the country's 27,000 stations started on time at 6 a.m., said Andrew Limo, spokesman for the Interim Independent Electoral Commission.

Counting started by hand in Eldoret after the polls closed at 5 p.m. local time, and the results could be announced Friday.

Results are being sent electronically using mobile phones and BlackBerrys, as well as being physically taken by officials to the election center in Bomas, Kenya, just outside the capital Nairobi.

Kenyans are watching the results come in as all the major news channels provide live updates on television and radio.

About 12.5 million Kenyans have registered to vote, according to the Interim Independent Electoral Commission. The commission replaced the discredited Electoral Commission of Kenya, which oversaw the 2007 disputed elections.

The new commission is at pains to ensure a credible final tally comes Friday.

"Many Kenyans were disappointed after the marred 2007 elections," said Limo, the electoral body's spokesman. "But we have worked hard to restore their faith in the country's electoral body. Systems are in place to ensure that the results are thoroughly certified before they are released. The expectations are high and we cannot fail the people."

Opponents of the draft constitution say its people were intimidated and there were some irregularities.

David Koech, an official of the No-Side, also said that the run-up to the referendum was never free and fair: "There was never a level playing field. The government used state machinery to campaign for the draft. But even so we are confident of victory and in the unlikely event that we lose, we will accept the results if they are not doctored."

Kipkorir arap Menjo, an official of the Yes-Side, says that the voting was transparent and that the complaints from the opposing side are not valid.

"The voting went smoothly, so the claims by the No-Side are just a strategy to reject the results if they are not in their favor," he said.

Opinion polls indicate the proposed constitution is likely to be passed by a majority of Kenyans, an sign that a majority of citizens are optimistic that the constitution will bring change.

There have been heated campaigns in the run-up to the referendum from both sides of the issue. Proponents of the draft -- officially known as the Greens or Yes-Side -- say it checks the current excessive powers of the president, devolves power to the regions and also strengthens the bill of rights.

Forerunners on the Yes-Side include President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who together pledged constitutional reforms when they formed a coalition government after the 2007 disputed elections.

The No-Side, or the Reds, includes members of Christian churches in Kenya who base their objection on land rights, a loophole that would potentially allow abortion and the possible elevation of one religion over others through the Islamic courts.

The draft constitution defines life as beginning at conception and outlaws abortion, but includes exceptions for "emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law."

Its opposition to the draft constitution has caused the church to be called anti-reformist, a label that it strongly denies.

"No, we are not halting reforms," said Bishop Mark Kariuki of Deliverance Church during a prayer meeting a week before the referendum. "We are saying let's get good things that are in the constitution, put them in a fridge, then we deal with the bad ones."

Opposition from the churches in Kenya is potentially crucial.

"Kenya is an overwhelmingly Christian nation," said Greg Smith, of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C.

Some 88 percent of Kenyans identify themselves as Christian, he said.

Kenya is about 7 percent Muslim, according to the Pew Forum.

Many Christians in Kenya object to the enshrining of Islamic courts as part of the country's legal system.

Known as kadhi courts, they would be an alternative to the civil courts "for matters such as law relating to personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance in proceedings in which all the parties profess the Muslim religion and submit to the jurisdiction of the Kadhi's courts," according to the draft constitution.

About 50 countries have some provision for religious courts to act as an alternative to civil courts for matters of personal status, the Pew Forum says.

Security -- especially in potential hot spots -- has been beefed up following concerns that violence would once again break out during the voting period.

Journalist Lillian Leposo and CNN's Richard Allen Greene contributed to this report.