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Africa

Rwandans head to polls in controversial referendum

The Rwandan people, living both inside and outside the country, are voting in a referendum on a constitutional amendment which would allow President Paul Kagame to serve a third term.

When it rains in Rwanda, life tends to come to a standstill. Not today. Hundreds of people have assembled at a school on the outskirts of the capital Kigali and, despite a downpour, show no sign of dispersing. They are taking part in a campaign event for the referendum on the new constitution amendments. Election posters nearby say "Vote Yes."

A "Yes" vote would mean that the constitution would be changed to allow President Paul Kagame to stay in office for a third term. He is now serving his second term which will end in 2017. The constitution currently states that a president may only serve two terms.

"The people have asked that the constitution be changed so that the president can stand for re-elections in 2017 if he decides to run," said Zeno Mutimura, a member of parliament, at the event.

He was referring to a petition signed by 3.7 million Rwandans and presented to parliament. Now the electorate will be voting on the new amendment to the constitution. The amendment would allow Kagame to continue serving (if elected) for a third seven year term. Then the presidential terms will be limited to two five-year terms. Kagame would also be eligible to serve those terms as well. That means that Kagame could serve for another 17 years or 31 years in total.

One man, 31 years

The international community is not happy with this proposed amendment.

"The adoption of provisions that can apply only to one individual weakens the credibility of the constitutional reform process as it undermines the principle of democratic change of government," said Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

There is little opposition to the constitutional amendment in Rwanda.

However, journalist Gonza Muganwa does not think that the referendum will offer any insight into the views of the people.

"It is not a reflection of any political debate. The good thing is that they are actually saying out loud that there is no alternate point of view. The political sphere is completely dominated by the ruling party and its allies," said Muganwa.

Rwandan newspaper seller

Critics are questioning whether the referendum is really a sign of democracy

The one independent party is the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR). They are pushing for a change of government and took legal action against the referendum which was unsuccessful.

"We could not campaign. There was no time to sensitize the people," said Carine Maombi, general secretary of the DGPR.

Many opposition members prefer to speak anonymously when asking about the referendum.

"We cannot say such things or our lives will be in danger. Some people have landed in prison. Other have been persecuted or have disappeared," said one opponent.

"I am against this because he said that he would only rule for two terms. I will not go to vote because I do not want my vote to be counted. The entire process is a lie," said another opponent of the constitutional amendment.

Vote 'Yes'

Pressure to vote for the constitutional amendment is great. There are reports that security agents are forcing citizens to gather for campaign events where they are told that they must vote "Yes." There are also reports that the many of the 3.7 million Rwandans who signed the petition that led to this referendum did not sign voluntarily.

President Kagame has yet to announce whether or not he will run again in 2017.

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