NAIROBI, Kenya — President Mwai Kibaki conceded defeat yesterday in Kenya’s first constitutional referendum since independence, a serious setback for a leader seen as not distinguishing himself from the corruption and autocracy afflicting this East African nation for decades.
Kenyans rejected the proposed constitution by 57 percent to 43 percent in voting Monday, said Samuel Kivuitu, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya. Because a third of adult Kenyans cannot read, voters cast ballots marked with a banana meaning “yes” and an orange meaning “no.”
“Many people rejected the proposed constitution,” Mr. Kibaki said in an address to the nation. “My government will respect the verdict of the people.”
Final results will be published Friday.
The referendum followed a campaign that divided the country along ethnic lines and led to the deaths of seven persons in clashes. Thousands of opponents danced and sang in the streets of the capital yesterday, waving oranges and leaves to celebrate the victory.
The country, slightly more than twice the size of Nevada, has 11.6 million registered voters in a population of 34 million. Turnout figures were not immediately available.
The referendum was cast by critics as a vote of confidence on Mr. Kibaki two years before the next presidential race. The campaign was rarely about the provisions of the draft charter, which would have created a position for a prime minister to be appointed by the president, strengthened civil rights and decentralized the government.
Instead, Kenyans were asked to consider whether Mr. Kibaki had kept promises he made during his 2002 presidential campaign to foster democracy and accountability and root out the corruption that was endemic under the 24-year rule of his predecessor, President Daniel arap Moi.
Mr. Kibaki pledged during his campaign that Kenya would get a new constitution within his first 100 days as president.
In the first year of his presidency, Mr. Kibaki was applauded for going after politicians linked to the Moi regime who were associated with corruption. But many Kenyans think he stumbled when the focus turned to corruption in his own administration.
Kenya’s current constitution, written in the run-up to its 1963 independence from Britain, has been revised several times to create a strong unitary state in which the president has sweeping powers. With the defeat of the draft charter, it will remain in force.
The rejected new constitution was crafted by Attorney General Amos Wako, a Kibaki ally who combined a draft created by a National Constitutional Conference in March 2004 and one proposed by parliament in July.
Mr. Wako’s document appeared closer to parliament’s draft, which critics charged gave the president too much power and contained provisions rejected by the constitutional conference.