UPDATE 3-Kenya high court delays elections to March 2013

Fri Jan 13, 2012 12:51pm EST

* Court rules parliament should serve full term

* Constitution set August date for polls

* Government wanted to move election date to December

* Election can only be held earlier if coalition collapses

By James Macharia

NAIROBI, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Kenya's High Court ruled on Friday that the next presidential and parliamentary elections should be held in March 2013 and not this August, unless the ruling coalition collapsed, forcing an earlier poll.

The east African country's next election will come under intense scrutiny because it will be the first under a new constitution, and the first since the 2007 poll that gave rise to fighting in which more than 1,220 people were killed.

The government had proposed amending the constitution to delay the vote to December because of logistical problems, prompting petitioners to ask the High Court for a ruling.

The court ruled that the current parliament should serve its full five-year term, which ends on Jan. 14, 2013, and that the elections should be held 60 days later. The ruling will disappoint many Kenyans who want to vote out their legislators sooner.

The court also ruled that the elections could be held this year only if the ruling coalition between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, created to end the violence after the 2007 election, were to collapse for any reason.

The electoral commission would then set a poll date within 60 days of the breakdown.

"We are conscious that our findings may be unpopular with a section of Kenyans who have preconceived notions about the elections," said Justice Isaac Lenaola, one of three judges who made the ruling. "But we hasten to remind Kenyans that our undertaking is not to ... suit popular opinion."

Many Kenyans are eager to vote out some legislators because they consider them lazy, corrupt and greedy, and say the lawmakers, among the best-paid in the world, are a privileged group who do little to help develop the country.

Kenyan legislators voted to quadruple their salaries in 2003 as their first order of business after the election, and angered the public again during the current term by refusing to pay tax.

Analysts predicted controversy over the high court ruling.

"This will go back to court for further interpretation. I see it going through the court of appeal. It could end up in the supreme court," political commentator Kwamchetsi Makokha said.

Odinga said he would consult Kibaki and try to end any concern the court's ruling might create.

"I will consult with President Kibaki and after our deliberation we shall give an appropriate statement. I will consult Kibaki as we don't want to keep the country in much suspense," Odinga told independent television station NTV.

Parliamentarians had been divided about the proposal to put off the elections to December from August, and opinion polls showed many Kenyans preferred an August election.

There are several potential contenders for the presidency, and some politicians are already mobilising party members to vote in the elections, in which they will also choose senators, county governors and civic officials.

"I totally disagree with the court's ruling," Martha Karua, a member of parliament who plans to run for the presidency, said on her Twitter account.

"Term of office must include the election period and that's the interpretation world over," said Karua, known as the Iron Lady for tackling allcomers in a male-dominated political field.

The constitution, endorsed by a referendum in 2010, had set Aug. 14 for the presidential and parliamentary elections.

An opinion poll in October showed 53 percent of Kenyans wanted an August election and 38 percent a December one.

AMENDMENT

Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo told Reuters that if there were no appeals against the court ruling, he would withdraw a bill containing amendments fixing the elections for December.

"I am trained to respect court findings. I will withdraw the date amendment if there are no appeals," Kilonzo told Reuters.

Although Kibaki's term runs to the end of December 2012, he will stay in power until a new leader is elected, Kilonzo said. Kibaki is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.

The electoral commission had also backed a December poll, saying it would not have time to ensure a fair electoral process if polls were held in August.

"It is unlikely that Kibaki will want the coalition to come to an end, so that he can stay in power longer," said Makokha. "This ruling has handed power to Odinga, who can trigger a collapse of the coalition and force the declaration of an early election if it serves his interests."

Odinga leads in opinion polls in the race to replace Kibaki.

His main rivals are Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding father Jomo Kenyatta, and former higher education minister William Ruto. Both face International Criminal Court charges over the 2007 post-election violence.

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