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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 11:09 GMT
Kenya's ruling coalition under threat
By Gray Phombeah
BBC, Nairobi

With the new draft constitution in place, it could have been one of most memorable moments in Kenya's history.

But bitter divisions within the current ruling elite during the constitution-making process seem to have taken an irreparable toll on Kenya's coalition government, 15 months after President Mwai Kibaki and an alliance of opposition parties came to power.

Female delegated rejoice at the end of the conference
Delegates sounded the first defeat for the government
His National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) won a landslide victory in the December 2002 elections with a pledge to fight widespread corruption and install a new constitution within 100 days.

The new government replaced that of Daniel arap Moi's Kanu party which was blamed for instituting a culture of corruption and dictatorship that had crippled Kenya's economic development and stunted Kenya's political life for almost four decades.

Worried nation

But a sharp rift, exposed a week ago, over a new constitution seeking to curb President Kibaki's power, has now cast fresh doubts over whether the battered coalition will survive its current political crisis.

The political crisis was sparked by a document presented to a conference convened to write a new constitution, proposing to hand the bulk of those powers to a prime minister.

It prompted the government to officially withdraw from the conference.

Not even a casual walk on one of Kenya's posh golf courses a few days later - as President Kibaki emerged from another long absence from the public eye - could re-assure a worried nation that all was well.

'Bruising battle'

In an act of defiance, most of the 629 delegates - including three cabinet ministers - went ahead and voted to trim presidential powers against the government's wishes, proposing the creation of a prime minister's post after the next elections in 2007.

Elected president appoints PM
PM appoints cabinet
PM leads government and chairs cabinet
President remains head of armed forces
The delegates also defied a last minute court order barring the release of the draft constitution to the government and on Tuesday handed it over to the attorney general, Amos Wako - setting the scene for a bruising battle in parliament between coalition MPs supporting the draft and those opposed to it.

The proposed changes to the constitution require parliament's approval - scheduled in its next sitting beginning 30 March - before they can become law.

After Moi

Elsewhere, plunging opinion polls, published on Wednesday by the country's leading media house, left the government more vulnerable than ever.

58% of those polled said that they supported the creation of a post of an executive prime minister as head of government with a president as head of state.

President Kibaki
Opinion polls say many Kenyans want an executive prime minister
Most Kenyans admit that the constitutional crisis was a long time coming.

They agree that from the beginning, the post-Moi script didn't go the way Mr Kibaki wanted.

Right from the swearing-in ceremony, cracks in the new leadership - brought about by the jumble of egos, agendas and parties making up the Rainbow Alliance - had begun to show as coalition partners accused President Kibaki of going back on jobs promises when he named his new team of ministers.

At the same time, Kibaki's laid-back style of government - partly blamed on injuries he sustained in a car crash on a campaign trail in 2002 - didn't help matters.

His aloofness and his hands-off approach unwittingly gave the impression of a leadership limbo for much of his one-year presidency and fuelled a growing view that he was unsuited for high office.

Coalition partners

His critics say he failed spectacularly to end the bitter internal struggle between the main two factions of the Coalition - his National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Raila Odinga.

Mr Odinga is seen by many as the coalition's strongman who delivered the opposition's victory in 2002 elections.

His supporters claim he was promised the premiership under a pact signed by coalition partners in the run-up to 2002 elections.

Even more dangerously for Mr Kibaki, say local analysts, was the way he allowed two ministers allied to him - Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Kiraitu Murungi and Internal Security Minister Chris Murungaru - to run the government machine and antagonise other coalition partners.

Failed promises

The knives were out in earnest last week when the long-running feud came to a head at the Bomas of Kenya, the venue of the constitutional talks.

The delegates - who included coalition MPs - handed the government its first major defeat, sending a strong warning to cabinet ministers close to Kibaki who want the presidency to retain its enormous powers in the new constitution.

Charity Ngilu (l) Raila Odinga(r)
Analysts says wrangles are undermining the coalition
The move served as a wake-call to Mr Kibaki, and on Monday and Tuesday he swiftly summoned leaders of various parties making up the coalition to State House to try and heal the widening rift in his coalition government.

When in the opposition, Mr Kibaki backed a dilution of presidential powers and creation of a strong prime minister under a new constitution.

He has now said the new law would take effect in June, although the court action and cabinet infighting suggest that the process could be sabotaged entirely.

'Grey dawn'

Analysts say the U-turn after coming to power has reinforced the increasingly widespread perception of Mr Kibaki and his inner circle as a nest of power freaks as bad as those under former president Moi.

They say the consequences of this dispute for Mr Kibaki and the coalition could be serious.

Disillusion is already running deep among the majority of Kenyans who - fed up with rising unemployment, crime and graft - voted successfully for the first time for change and not for their ethnic group in the 2002 polls.

Now the countdown to next month's crucial vote in parliament is on.

Come the appointed hour, the renegade members of the ruling coalition are expected to push for the reformed constitution, with substantial help from the opposition.

Whatever the outcome, Kenya could be plunged into a dangerous political crisis.

One year on, Kenya's new dawn is looking increasingly grey.

Kenya constitution row in court
23 Mar 04  |  Africa
Kenyan leader could lose powers
15 Mar 04  |  Africa
Kenya constitution talks at risk
18 Nov 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Kenya
09 Mar 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Kenya
10 Mar 04  |  Country profiles

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