The constitutional changes are seen as important to avoid a repeat of the post-election tribal bloodshed in early 2008 that killed 1,300 people and took the country of about 40 million people to the brink of anarchy.
“This is crucial for our country and us as citizens: it is a turning point,” university auditor John Njoroge said in the town of Eldoret, a hotspot during the post-election violence.
“2007, 2008 was bad. It is now behind us, in the past. We learned a lesson and we want to move forward,” he told Reuters as he voted at a primary school in the Rift Valley town.
Most Kenyans are expected to vote in favour, according to surveys. If the draft law fails, Kenya would revert to the current constitution bequeathed by former colonial power Britain.
The new law addresses the corruption, political patronage, land grabbing and tribalism which have plagued Kenya since it won independence in 1963. It proposes greater checks on presidential powers, more devolution to grassroots administrations and increases civil liberties.
A previous attempt to change the constitution through a referendum in 2005 failed.
Kenyan shares rallied strongly for the fifth straight session on Tuesday, driven by expectations the law will be adopted, while the shilling rose against the dollar.
As voting kicked off at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT), a queue several hundred metres (yards) long snaked away from a polling station on Moi Avenue in the heart of the capital Nairobi.
“I’d like to see changes in Kenya, that’s why I woke up early to cast my vote,” Kenneth Lijodi said after casting his ballot at the polling station.
“DESTINY OF OUR COUNTRY”
To be adopted, the law requires a majority of 50 percent plus one vote of the ballot cast nationally and at least 25 percent of the votes in five of Kenya’s eight provinces.
The country’s electoral authority said on Tuesday the process would be more transparent than the 2007 election, when allegations the poll was rigged in favour of President Mwai Kibaki led to the bloodletting.
Kibaki assured the country that security had been strengthened at polling stations to prevent any violence.
“We have now come to a defining moment in our nation’s history … vote to determine the destiny of our country,” Kibaki said in a television and radio address on Tuesday.
Some 12.5 million people have registered to vote.
Financial and stock markets will be closed on voting day. Traders and analysts say markets would take great confidence from its peaceful passage into law.
“The ‘No’ camp’s efforts to tie the document to controversial social issues like abortion have mobilised opposition from some church groups, but the ‘Yes’ camp has a broader regional and ethnic coalition,” Philippe de Pontet, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a research note.
“Voter approval of a new constittion in a national referendum on 4 August will provide a short-term boost for the coalition government,” he said.
The new charter was a key provision in the power-sharing deal struck between then rivals Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to end the violence that followed the election in 2007.
Odinga’s former ally, William Ruto, a cabinet minister based in the Rift Valley, is spearheading the “No” campaigners, who are angry with the clauses related to land ownership.
On the eve of the vote, tribal tensions in parts of the Rift Valley, which was hard hit by the clashes, prompted some residents to flee their homes. But a rights group said the chances of chaos were lower this time.
“When you want to know if violence will break out, you want to look at secret meetings between politicians and implementing agents. These have not been happening,” Ken Wafula, head of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, told Reuters.
“I don’t think there’s too much to get us worried.” Reuters