President Mwai Kibaki is staking his political prestige on a referendum that has turned into a power struggle with opponents who say he has failed to end decades of graft and tribalism.
The tussle between Kibakiâ€™s â€œYesâ€ camp and his opponentsâ€™ â€œNoâ€ campaign has widened a split in his cabinet and deepened a strain of communal tension in the country of 32 million.
The main controversy over the charter centres on the powers of the president, with critics saying it ignores the desire of most Kenyans to balance those powers with a strong prime ministerâ€™s post and other checks.
Critics argue, Kibaki is staging the vote to try to quash cabinet dissidents who accuse him of concentrating power around his Kikuyu tribe and permitting a group of business cronies to loot state coffers, a charge he denies.
Kenyaâ€™s most high profile government dissident says losing his job over a disputed new constitution is a price worth paying if his opposition to it can bury an unhappy era of â€œBig Manâ€ rule.
Yesterdayâ€™s referendum on a new constitution has deepened divisions in President Mwai Kibakiâ€™s fractious coalition, with seven ministers campaigning against the document to replace a charter penned on the eve of independence in 1963.
Kibaki â€” gambling his political survival on the vote that has turned into a bad-tempered test of strength before 2007 elections â€” has threatened to sack rebellious ministers.
â€œBeing sacked is the least of my worries,â€ Roads and Public Works Minister Raila Odinga told Reuters on Sunday.
â€œMy preoccupation is to get a democratic constitution, and if being sacked is the price we have to pay to do that, Iâ€™m ready and willing.â€
An icon to his Luo tribe based around Lake Victoria, Odinga was an architect of Kibakiâ€™s 2002 poll win over the Kenya National African Union of his predecessor Daniel arap Moi, ending four decades of KANU rule marked by graft and tribalism.
When in opposition, Kibaki, 74, backed a dilution of presidential powers and the creation of a strong prime minister â€” a position he promised to Odinga, 58.
But Kibaki, from the Kikuyu tribe, the Luoâ€™s longstanding rivals, has since declared he would not allow â€œanother centre of powerâ€ during his term.
â€œThe days of the strongman rule, the strongman on horseback handing out instructions to his subjects are long gone,â€ Odinga said. â€œWe want to put that dirty past in a museum where it rightly belongs so we can look forward to a much more democratic, open society.â€
Odinga said the new charter ignores the will of the majority of Kenyans to balance the presidentâ€™s immense powers with a robust prime ministerâ€™s post and other constitutional checks.
â€œThis constitution is a recipe for disaster and can create a rogue president who will run roughshod over society and this is what we want to prevent from happening by voting â€˜Noâ€™ to this draft constitution,â€ he said.
Despite the violence and tribal animosity during the run-up to the vote, Odinga said reconciliation will still be possible.
â€œThis issue really need not divide the government irreparably,â€ Odinga said. â€œThe constitution is bigger than the government of the day, something that is supposed to last for posterity...this does not need to affect the functioning of government post-referendum.â€
He foresaw the ascendancy of a new political order before the next elections, driven by the relatively young figures leading the â€œNoâ€ campaign that include opposition leader Uhuru Kenyatta and Environment Minister Kalonzo Musyoka.
â€œIf anything else, this movement is a clear indication that there is an imminent generation handing over in our society as the younger generation are finally asserting themselves and ready to assume leadership in our country,â€ Odinga said.
But he stopped short of saying he would run for president.
â€œI have the credentials to become the president of this country...but Iâ€™m not selfish enough to say it must be Raila Odinga,â€ he said.
- Kenya gained independence from Britain on December 12, 1963, following the Mau Mau insurgency. First post-independence leader Kenyatta ruled until death in 1978. Multi-partyism introduced in early 1990s.
- The proposed charter is the first complete overhaul since a version drawn up on the eve of 1963 independence from Britain.
- Nine people have died this year in riots and clashes surrounding the constitution debate.
- Critics say the draft fails to curb the presidentâ€™s immense powers, which include appointing senior government officials and heads of state firms. Supporters insist the president would be more answerable to parliament.
- President Mwai Kibaki backs the new constitution, while one of his coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the opposition Kenya African National Union lead the â€œNoâ€ camp.
- A 2004 draft created a powerful new prime ministerâ€™s post, but that was watered down in the final version, with the president able to appoint and dismiss a PM whose main job would be to lead government matters in parliament.
- The new constitution would establish a system of separate religious tribunals: Christian, Muslim and Hindu courts.
- It would prohibit abortion â€” unless permitted by an act of parliament â€” as well as same-sex marriages. Women and men would have an equal right to inherit and manage property.
- Election authorities have chosen bananas and oranges as symbols for the â€œYesâ€ and â€œNoâ€ camps.
-Some 11 million Kenyans are eligible to vote at 19,134 polling centres between 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and 5 p.m. (1200 GMT). About 20,000 observers, mainly local, will be monitoring. Results are expected late on Monday or early on Tuesday.
Raila Odinga says he is ready for the sack