Rwandans vote on constitution changes to let Kagame extend rule

KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwandans voted on Friday in a referendum on changing the constitution that would allow President Paul Kagame to extend his term in office, possibly until 2034, despite criticism of such an amendment by the United States and other Western donors.

Kagame would be able to run again in 2017 after his second mandate ends if the changes are passed as expected. Kagame, 58, has been president since 2000 but effectively in control since his rebel force marched into Kigali in 1994 to end a genocide.

Kagame has not said if he would run again, but is widely expected to. Asked at the polling station if he would stay on, he told reporters: “What is happening is the people’s choice. Ask people why they want me.”

The result, which analysts expect to be “yes”, is likely to emerge later on Friday. Under the changes, Kagame could seek another seven-year term and two five-year terms after that.

The United States, a major donor that has praised Kagame for rebuilding the nation since the genocide, said this month Kagame should resist the lure of power and step down in 2017 to allow a new generation of leaders to come through.

The debate about extending presidential terms has swept other African nations. It has triggered violence and instability in Burundi and Congo Republic, but not in Rwanda.

“Rwanda is secure now and it’s thanks to him,” Musa Habimana, 60, a businessman, said after voting, echoing the views of many who back a leader credited with ending a massacre in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

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Nationalist songs blared in some polling stations. The lyrics of one included the words: “We shall protect the country. We shall protect its leaders.”

Despite Kagame’s success in delivering economic and social change, rights groups accuse the government of stifling the media and political opposition, a charge it denies.

“Elections in Rwanda have never been transparent, so even if I could go, my ‘no’ vote would not be counted,” said one woman who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

The tiny Democratic Green Party, the only real opposition party, tried to block the move in court but the case was rejected. It complained it could not campaign either. “It was not a level playing field,” said party leader Frank Habineza.

Western diplomats also said the changes were rushed through.

“Kagame clearly enjoys considerable public support across the country, but it is difficult to know what many Rwandans really think,” wrote Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, citing restrictions on free speech.

The government has dismissed such criticism. It says the decision to change the constitution and hold a referendum was taken after a public petition was presented to parliament with 3.7 million signatories in a nation of 11 million people.

Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alison Williams