NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyans overwhelmingly backed a new constitution to replace a British colonial-era draft that inflated the powers of the president, preliminary results announced Thursday showed. A leading opponent said the "No" side would respect the outcome.
Ethnically charged violence left more than 1,000 people dead following the disputed 2007 presidential election, and a peaceful concession is key to a tranquil postelection period. No major violence has been reported, but authorities deployed police around the country en masse during the vote.
Almost 70 percent of the country voted in favor of the new constitution during Wednesday's vote, according to preliminary vote results.
Opponents of the draft earlier had expressed misgivings about the results, but William Ruto, Kenya's higher education minister and a top leader of the "No" team, said the majority had expressed their views.
"As member of the 'No' team we respect the verdict of the majority," Ruto said. He then called on 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.
Kenya's election commission underscored that it was the only organization that could name a winner, but with a seemingly overwhelming victory at hand, the "Yes" team was ready to declare victory.
"Saying that we have won is an understatement. Kenya has been reborn," said Kiraitu Murungi, the minister of energy and a member of the "Yes" team. "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."
Voters overwhelmed polling stations in some locations Wednesday. The international community, and particularly the U.S., has 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, the chairman of the Elections Observation Group, which had 10,000 observers across the country.
The group projected that the "Yes" team will win with 68.8 percent and the "No" vote will get 31.2 percent. It also projected the turnout at 72.5 percent, which would be the highest turnout for a national vote in Kenya's history. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
The apparent passing of the new constitution is a major victory for President Mwai Kibaki, who backed a constitutional referendum in 2005 that was defeated.
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.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Wednesday the Obama administration was gratified that a large number of Kenyans voted and that the vote was generally peaceful.
"This is an important step toward strengthening democratic institutions in Kenya," Crowley said.
Associated Press reporter Katharine Houreld in the Rift Valley and Tom Maliti in Nairobi contributed to this report.