- Amendment would let president run for seven-year term in 2017
- Leaders extending rules led to unrest in Burundi, Burkina Faso
Rwandans voted in a referendum over an amendment to the East African nation’s constitution that would allow President Paul Kagame to extend his rule for as many as three terms.
Polling stations opened nationwide Friday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., with 6.39 million people eligible to cast ballots, according to the election commission. Rwanda’s current charter limits the president to two seven-year terms; the change would permit Kagame to compete for a third time in elections scheduled for 2017. It would also let him stand in two subsequent elections for the new, reduced term-limit of five years, potentially retaining the country’s top job until 2034.
Kagame, 58, has governed Rwanda since 2000 after he led a rebel army that ended the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed. The coffee-producing nation has been one of the fastest-growing African economies, with expansion of 7 percent last year expected to rise to 7.5 percent in 2015 and 2016.
Elsewhere on the continent, leaders’ attempts to extend their stays in office have sparked protests. In Burkina Faso, mass demonstrations forced Blaise Compaore to quit last year after almost three decades in power, while Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s disputed re-election in July has spurred worsening violence in which at least 400 people have died, including more than 80 in the past week.
The U.S. State Department said in November Kagame should respect his previous vow to step down at the end of his term in 2017. The New Times newspaper, based in the capital, Kigali, said in an editorial Thursday that it expects the referendum result will be in favor of the changes. The country’s parliament had by July received 3.78 million petitions by Rwandans backing the amendments.
Public opposition has been muted. The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, one of the few exceptions, previously petitioned Kagame to ask him not to change the constitution and is encouraging a ‘no’ vote.
Rwandans citizens “should be able to make a fully informed and free choice on the terms of the constitution, but the current context may not be conducive to them expressing that choice,” Carina Tertsakian, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Thursday in a dispatch on the New York-based group’s website. She cited weak civil society organizations caused by “years of government intimidation, threats and administrative obstacles.”
Preliminary results will be announced about 8:30 p.m. Friday and the final outcome early Monday, National Electoral Commission official Charles Munyaneza said by phone.