A large majority of Burundians voted in favor of amending the country's constitution, the electoral commission said Monday, clearing the way for President Pierre Nkurunziza to rule until 2034.
The 54-year-old leader, who has been in power since 2005, campaigned strongly ahead of the May 17 referendum. The changes mean presidential terms will be extended from five to seven years, allowing Nkurunziza to run for two more terms in office when his current tenure expires in 2020.
Just over 73 percent voted "yes" to the amendments, while 19 percent voted "no," electoral commission chairman Pierre Claver Ndayicariye told reporters. Some 4.7 million Burundians, or around 96 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots.
Ahead of the referendum, the opposition had called for people to boycott the vote, calling it undemocratic and pointing out that Nkurunziza has already stayed in power longer than the constitution allows.
The government insisted the vote would be free and fair, but observers voiced concerns about a climate of intimidation and alleged attacks on perceived opponents. A presidential decree issued earlier this month threatened anyone advocating a boycott with up to three years in jail.
"Burundi's referendum took place amid widespread abuse, fear, and pressure — a climate that is clearly not conducive to free choice," said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Years of unrest:
Prolonged rule: Nkurunziza is the latest African leader to change the constitution to stay in power. The former rebel leader entered office in 2005 after a peace deal that ended civil war in Burundi. He was re-elected unopposed in 2010, but in 2015 argued he was eligible for a third term because lawmakers, not voters, had chosen him the first time.
What happens next: The referendum results are provisional and must be confirmed by the constitutional court within nine days.
nm/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)