Nairobi (AP) – Kenya's president heralded the passage of a new constitution Thursday as a "national renewal," after results showed that close to 70 percent of the country had backed the document replacing a British colonial-era draft that inflated the powers of the presidency.
Opponents of the new constitution conceded defeat gracefully, paving the way for a peaceful transition to the new draft document. Ethnically charged violence had left more than 1,000 people dead following the disputed 2007 presidential election, raising concerns about the aftermath of Wednesday's vote.
"The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end," President Mwai Kibaki told hundreds of supporters in downtown Nairobi, some of whom blew the loud vuvuzela horn made famous during the recent World Cup. "Indeed, may the new constitutional dispensation be our shield and defender."
Kenya's election commission said 67 percent of the 8.6 million voters who cast ballots backed the new constitution, an overwhelming victory that likely helped quash any potential for violence. Voter turnout was 71 percent, the reason that long lines snaked for hours at ballot boxes around the country.
Opponents of the draft had expressed misgivings early Thursday about the results, but William Ruto, Kenya's higher education minister and a top leader of the "No" team, conceded defeat.
"As member of the 'No' team, we respect the verdict of the majority," Ruto said. He then urged the "Yes" side to engage in negotiations over the parts of the constitution the "No" side objected to, items likely to include the constitution's clauses on abortion and land ownership.
Kibaki reached out to the "No" camp in his speech, saying that the "No" voters' voices had been heard. Others in the "Yes" camp took a more celebratory tone.
"Saying that we have won is an understatement. Kenya has been reborn," said Kiraitu Murungi, the minister of energy. "In fact it has been 20 years of painful labor. There is neither winner nor loser, we are all Kenyans, let us embrace each other as we usher the country into a new chapter."
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Kenya's new constitution was the centerpiece of the country's reform agenda aimed at addressing underlying causes of violence.
The results are "an indication that a very strong majority of Kenyans have voted for fundamental change," Clinton said. "We urge all Kenyans to reach out to each other to work together after this referendum to support Kenya's democratic institutions and to move Kenya forward into the kind of future that Kenyans themselves deserve."
Voters overwhelmed polling stations in some locations Wednesday. The international community, and particularly the U.S., had urged Kenyans to pass the constitution, even as the draft raised emotions over land rights, abortion and Muslim family courts.
Kenya's current constitution, drawn up in the lead-up to Kenya's 1963 independence from Britain, grants the president sweeping powers. The new constitution would dramatically cut back on those powers by setting up an American-style system of checks and balances, and paving the way for much-needed land reform.
In the Rift Valley – the scene of some of the worst atrocities in 2007-08 – Bishop Cornelius Korir said the church would continue to press the government as it implements the new constitution to take into account the church's view on abortion.
"We are very proud of the people of the North Rift for maintaining peace, and we want peace to continue," Korir said.
A coalition of evangelical churches said in a statement that it was saddened by irregularities in the campaign, balloting and counting phases of the election process, but the Catholic church and the Anglican church did not sign the statement.
An observer group said it had not seen any signs of rigging as had been claimed by some in the "No" camp.
"We are confident that the process and the results reflect the wishes of Kenyans," said Kennedy Masime, chairman of the Elections Observation Group, which had 10,000 observers across the country.
The passing of the new constitution is a major victory for Kibaki, who backed a constitutional referendum in 2005 that was defeated. The push for a new constitution began two decades ago.
The referendum was one of the conditions of the power-sharing agreement between Kibaki and Prime Minster Raila Odinga that ended the 2007-08 violence. Both back the new constitution, and both appealed to Kenyans to vote peacefully.
Kenyan presidents have long favored their own ethnic tribes in the distribution of resources, a tremendous source of tension here.
(Associated Press reporter Katharine Houreld in the Rift Valley, Tom Maliti in Nairobi and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Kenya's new constitution, approved in a referendum, is the centerpiece of the country's reform agenda. Critics oppose it in part because it loosens restrictions on abortion in Kenya.