NAIROBI, Kenya – Leaders in Kenya called on the country Tuesday to carry out a peaceful referendum, as police said they were better placed to deal with any post-vote violence than during the 2007-08 killing spree after the presidential election.
Kenyans vote Wednesday on whether to accept or reject a new constitution, a draft that has raised emotions over land rights, abortion and Muslim family courts.
The international community, and particularly the United States, has urged Kenyans to pass the constitution, which would reduce the powers of the presidency.
The "No" camp has alleged that the vote will be rigged, but election officials said that the vote tallying will be broadcast live on TV and radio.
Violence following the last nationwide vote 2 1/2 years ago killed more than 1,000 people, and the country's authorities are working to avoid a repeat of the mayhem.
The constitutional referendum is one of the conditions of the power sharing agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minster Raila Odinga that ended the 2007-08 violence. Both leaders back the new constitution.
"I appeal to Kenyans to turn out and cast their votes in large numbers. Let us do so peacefully. Let us also embrace one another as brothers and sisters even after the referendum," Kibaki said in a televised address. "I assure you all that security has been stepped up in all parts of the country."
Political and religious leaders campaigning against the constitution alleged the government plans to rig the vote. They claimed this included using a branch of the police force to impersonate campaign agents during the count. The "No" camp said they had informed the electoral commission and had put in place measures to guard against rigging.
"We urge all Kenyans to vote peacefully during the referendum tomorrow. Do not engage in any form of violence or coercion, and indeed do all in your power to restrain those who try to disrupt the peace of our nation," said Njeru Kathangu, reading a statement on behalf the other "No" leaders.
The head of Kenya's electoral commission said that vote tallying will be more transparent than during the last election, when claims of vote rigging led to violence. The count will be broadcast live on TV and radio.
"When it is on the public domain it becomes difficult to manipulate the results," Isaack Hassan said.
The leaders of the "Yes" campaign called on Kenyans to remain peaceful after the vote.
"We shall accept the democratic choice of the Kenyan people and we shall congratulate the Kenyan people for doing a good job," said Anyang Nyongo, the government minister of the Medical Services ministry.
The "No" vote is backed by most of Kenya's church community, which objects to a clause that says abortion is permitted if the life or health of the mother is in danger according to the opinion of a "trained health professional." The draft also has stirred emotions over publicly funded family courts for Muslims.
Polls show the constitution is likely to pass. Politicians and analysts predict the referendum will be largely peaceful, but at least 200 people in the volatile Rift Valley have fled their homes, fearing a new flare-up.
Kenya is sending thousands of extra police officers to the Rift Valley, home of the largest concentration of Kenyans planning to vote against the constitution and site of some of the worst attacks in 2007-08. During the violence, tribesmen used bows and arrows to fight each other, gangs hacked opponents to death and police were accused of shooting sprees.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Tuesday that the world had come to believe Kenyans cannot hold peaceful votes.
"As we go to the referendum to decide whether the proposed constitution should be our supreme law or not, I want to appeal to our people to prove the world wrong," Odinga said in a statement.
Kenya's police commissioner said his forces are better prepared to deal with any violence. More than 63,000 police officers will secure the referendum.
"We have adequate security forces in every division and the districts. We have standby forces to act to any eventuality that may occur," Commissioner Mathew Iteere said. "To those who will win I am appealing to them to be magnanimous in their celebration, and to the others to graciously accept the verdict and will of the people."
The draft constitution cuts down the president's enormous powers by setting up an American-style presidential system of checks and balances. Kenyan presidents have long favored their own tribesmen in the distribution of resources, a source of tension here.
Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso contributed to this report.