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Despite anxiety over potential for violence, Kenyans vote on new constitution

Kenyans go the polls to vote on a new constitution in the nation's first ballot since 2007-08 post-election violence left more than 1,000 dead.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Thursday, August 5, 2010

NAIROBI -- Kenyans came out in large numbers Wednesday to vote on a new constitution that, if passed, promises to bring more accountability and rule of law to one of Africa's most corrupt nations and usher in a political landscape unlike any since the end of British rule in 1963.

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The referendum took place against a backdrop of fear and anxiety as many Kenyans worried that violence could once again haunt their country as it did after the disputed 2007 elections, when more than 1,000 people died in ethnic and politically motivated attacks.

Taking no chances, Kenyan election authorities enacted measures to ensure more transparency in the voting process, especially to ensure that ballots would be transmitted and counted properly. Tens of thousands of police officers were dispatched across the country, including 18,000 alone to the Rift Valley, the center of the 2007 violence, where opposition to the draft constitution is the loudest.

As of Wednesday evening, authorities reported few problems. In the poor Nairobi neighborhood of Kangemi, some groups of men blocked roads and attacked a couple of vehicles, but for the most part the voting was peaceful, even in the Rift Valley.

"It was peaceful throughout" and were no incidents of violence, said Bernard Muinde, a senior police official in charge of security in areas surrounding Eldoret, the largest town in the Rift Valley. "Things are going very well," he adding, saying that the polls had closed and that tallying of votes had started.

The proposed constitution is designed to redress long-standing imbalances of power among Kenya's tribes. And Wednesday's referendum will serve as a litmus test of whether this key U.S. ally in East Africa can bridge its communal divides.

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