Judgement day: Kenya's court to deliver verdict on constitutional change

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Kenya's Court of Appeal will deliver its verdict Friday on the president's controversial three-year quest to change the constitution, a ruling that could shake up the political landscape less than a year before elections.

President Uhuru Kenyatta argues that the initiative will help end repeated cycles of election violence in the East African country, a hot-button issue that has divided the political elite.

The proposed reforms came about following a rapprochement between Kenyatta and his erstwhile opponent Raila Odinga and a famous handshake between the two men after post-election fighting in 2017 left dozens of people dead.

The so-called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seeks notably to dilute the current winner-take-all electoral system blamed by Kenyatta for poll unrest, by expanding the executive and parliament.

"Make or break: BBI verdict to shake politics," was the headline in Kenya's The Standard newspaper, while People Daily declared: "Moment of Truth for BBI".

Election campaigns in Kenya are often fought between ethnically-based alliances and communal violence can flare, notably in 2007-8 when more than 1,100 people died.

- 'Will of the people' -

Kenyatta's proposed reforms to the 2010 constitution were approved by parliament in May and were then due to be put to a referendum.

But just two days later, the Nairobi High Court ruled they were illegal as the president did not have the right to initiate the process, only parliament.

Kenyatta criticised the decision as "an attempt to stop the will of the people" and his government appealed.

Proponents of the BBI argue it will improve fairness in the electoral system and help curb violence.

If the reforms are adopted, new positions of prime minister and two deputies would be created and there would be a formal designation of the post of opposition leader.

The president would remain head of government and commander-in-chief, while ministers would answer to the prime minister.

The size of parliament would be expanded with 70 new constituencies, while the Senate would have 50-50 representation between men and women.

Critics, including Kenyatta's deputy William Ruto, charge that the reforms could threaten the country's democratic institutions.

Kenyatta cannot run for a third term in 2022 and his pursuit of the reforms with Odinga, a four-time presidential contender, has spurred speculation that he may seek to become prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement.

Kenyatta had initially anointed Ruto -- who has served as his deputy since 2013 -- as his successor but the pair fell out several years ago after the president moved closer to Odinga.

Some have also argued that the initiative would further burden a country struggling under a $70-billion debt mountain. The changes would push up parliament's already sky-high wage bill while creating more opportunities for patronage and corruption, they say.

- 'Significant implications' -

Each member of a seven-judge panel headed by appeal court president Daniel Musinga will read their own decisions on Friday, with a final judgment expected in the afternoon.

As well as a decision on the BBI process, the court could also decide if Kenyatta could be sued while still in office for championing the changes.

The eagerly-awaited verdict -- which could be appealed at the Supreme Court -- will have a bearing on the election calendar.

If the BBI is again ruled illegal, the electoral process would follow its planned course.

"That would be the least disruption," Nic Cheeseman, a professor at the University of Birmingham in England, told AFP.

On the flipside, he said, approval of the BBI "would be the more destabilizing option" because of questions about whether there would be time to introduce all the reforms by election day.

There are "quite significant implications here for the political system, for the elections timetable and also for the political alliances that will be competing in the election."

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