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Kenya  Withdrawal from Constitutional Conference Sparks Criticism - 2004-03-16


The Kenyan government said Tuesday it is withdrawing from a long-running constitutional conference, which rejected the proposal for a presidential form of government with a weak prime minister. Observers say the government is backtracking on a key election promise to curtail the powers of the president.

Kenyan Vice President Moody Awori told reporters on Tuesday that the government was behind what he called a "people-driven constitutional review process," and he said there will be a new constitution by June.

But at the same time, he said the government was pulling out of the constitutional conference when a proposal for a strong presidency and a weak prime minister was not even submitted for debate.

A group of government ministers and other supporters, spurred on by Constitutional Affairs Minister Kiraitu Murungi, walked out of the conference Monday because of what Mr. Murungi said was flawed procedure.

"Unless this consensus report is tabled for adoption in this meeting, and unless, chair, that all the votes taken in the morning can be declared null and void, and chair, unless we institute voting by secret ballot as a method of voting in this conference, we are withdrawing from this conference," he announced.

The division of powers between the president and a newly created position of prime minister is a sensitive issue for many Kenyans.

Eager to avoid a dictatorial president, Kenyans have told constitutional hearings they wanted a constitution under which the powers of the president and the prime minister would be shared.

A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Peter Odoyo, says the government has a dilemma.

"Reduced powers for the president was a request by the people across the country," said Mr. Odoyo. "So obviously as a government who wants to stay in power, you have to listen to the people. At the end of the day, you either go with the voters, or you make a decision."

The current National Rainbow Coalition government, made up of more than a dozen political parties, came together in part to rewrite the constitution and re-distribute much of the presidential powers.

An analyst with the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, Preston Chitere, says the government's refusal to give the prime minister substantial powers threatens to splinter the already fragile coalition government.

"The Memorandum of Understanding was very clear between the parties as they came together to form the new government," he said. "Now that the government is in power and a few people are at the top, I think they want to retain the status that was there earlier."

The constitutional conference is expected to wrap up Friday and then submit its draft to the parliament. The draft constitution will also be put to a national referendum.

The constitutional conference, attended by members of parliament, representatives from non-government organizations, religious groups and civic organizations has been working on the draft constitution for more than a year.

Under the current constitution, the president has the power, among other things, to dissolve parliament at will, hire and fire judges and appoint the head of Kenya's military.

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