President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame posts his ballot, in Kigali, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. Rwandans are voting in a referendum to decide if President Paul Kagame should be allowed to extend his time in power. Kagame, 58, is ineligible to run in 2017 because the Rwandan constitution limits a president to two terms. But if Rwandans vote to change the term restriction, Kagame would be able to run for an additional seven-year term and then two-five terms. He could possibly stay in power until 2034. (AP Photo)
By The Associated Press
KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — Rwandans are voting in a referendum to decide if President Paul Kagame should be allowed to extend his time in power.
Kagame, 58, is ineligible to run in 2017 because the Rwandan constitution limits a president to two terms. But if Rwandans approve the referendum, Kagame would be able to run for an additional seven-year term and then two-five year terms, which means he could possibly stay in power until 2034.
Kagame became president in 2000 after being Rwanda’s de facto leader since the end of the country’s genocide in 1994. He is credited with stabilizing the country and promoting economic growth after the mass killings, but critics say he is an authoritarian ruler who does not tolerate opposition and he is accused of human rights abuses.
Rwanda’s political opposition criticizes the referendum as undemocratic and the U.S., a key Rwandan ally, has opposed Kagame’s bid to stay in power.
Long lines formed as voting started at 7 a.m. at most of the polling stations countrywide. Numbers were expected to surge in the afternoon with voting expected to end at 3 p.m. Many of 6.4 million registered voters are expected to participate in the referendum.
Kagame voted at Rugunga polling station in the capital, Kigali around 11.25 a.m. accompanied by his wife and daughter.
“What is happening is people’s choice. Ask people why they want it,” he said maintaining that it’s the wish of the Rwandan people that he extends his term. He said he would announce his candidature “any time.”
Western diplomats voiced concerns about the vote. The European Union is worried that the opposition was not given adequate time to campaign against the referendum, said Michael Ryan, head of the EU delegation to Rwanda.
“There should have been adequate time for debates, and educating people about the changes made in the constitution,” Ryan told journalists.
The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda is the only opposition party which rallied Rwandans to vote against changing the constitution to extend presidential term limits.
Erica Barks-Ruggles, the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, said she is concerned because the referendum was organized very quckly.
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