Speaker's election victory boosts Kenyan opposition

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The Independent Online

Some say there are only two tribes that matter in Kenya – the haves and the have-nots. The opening day of parliament yesterday, after the disputed elections that sparked a wave of violence across the country, was a reunion for the haves. Government and opposition MPs greeted each other like old friends, vigorously shaking hands and sharing jokes.

Indeed, many of them are old friends. Some opposition MPs once supported the government of President Mwai Kibaki, while about half those now aligned with the government were in opposition a few months ago. But even friends sometimes disagree. After a deeply flawed election that left international observers and diplomats unable to say for sure who won, both sides have accused the other of inciting violence which has so far claimed more than 600 lives.

The opposition Orange Democratic Movement party (ODM) is planning rallies today, and mediation efforts have been put on hold after the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who was due to arrive last night, went down with "severe flu".

In Nairobi's wood-panelled national assembly, modelled on Britain's House of Commons with its adversarial leather benches, the two sides continued their political battle yesterday as they voted on the new parliamentary Speaker.

Raila Odinga, the man that the ODM and its supporters believe is Kenya's rightful president, entered to a standing ovation from his own MPs. They remained seated as President Kibaki arrived moments later – the first time they had been in the same room since the December ballot.

Both sides backed different candidates for the Speaker's job. The government wanted Francis Ole Kaparo, the incumbent; the ODM was backing one of its own, Kenneth Marende. His party, with 99 of the 207 seats, was confident of victory. But, despite having just 43 MPs, Mr Kibaki was sure he had secured the support of enough members from smaller parties to win.

It did not take long for the atmosphere to heat up. The clerk, dressed in a dark blue gown, announced that the ballot would be secret. The ODM complained. A secret ballot, they feared, would allow some of their own supporters to switch sides. In Kenya's ideology-free, money-rich political world, bribery is not uncommon.

The ODM MPs made a show of displaying their ballot papers to supporters, provoking anger from some government MPs. "Why are they displaying their ballot? Is it a secret ballot?" yelled one. William Ruto, an opposition leader, hit back: "We went into the [presidential] election with a secret ballot, you stole the vote!"

One after another, MPs rose to make points of order as the increasingly exasperated clerk tried in vain to keep control. Others sat on the benches, exchanging insults across the aisle.

Kalonzo Musyoka, who finished third in the presidential poll and took the job of Vice-President, said MPs should not "participate in a flawed process". That brought a sharp response from the ODM's secretary general, Anyang' Nyong'o. "He has just accepted being Vice-President in a flawed process," he said, to cheers from his own side.

George Saitoti, the new Internal Security minister, said that anything other than a secret ballot would "undermine democracy". The government's pleas for secrecy were, his colleagues said, based on principle.

The clerk, now beginning to sweat, repeated his call for the MPs "show the nation how a secret ballot is run". In the end, the argument was settled by Britain.

The Attorney General, Amos Wako, waved a copy of Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, the guide to British parliamentary procedure. Where Kenya's parliamentary practices were not specific enough, he said, British rules filled the gaps.

Turning to page 280 of the book's 23rd edition, Mr Wako quoted a section that said elections for Speaker should be held in secret. The votes already cast were torn up and the process started all over again.

President Kibaki, who sat on a leather-backed wooden throne behind the clerk, looked bored by the process, occasionally muttering to a soldier to his left.

"Would the President come and begin voting again?" the clerk asked. Mr Kibaki sighed and shuffled from his seat. He and the other MPs had to vote two more times before a result emerged. Bribery attempts had failed. The ODM won and elected Mr Marende.