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Niger Prepares for Referendum on Presidential Term Limits

Voters in Niger are preparing to take part in a referendum to change the constitution to allow the president to run for a third term. The president is ruling by decree since dissolving both parliament and the constitutional court after they opposed his move.

President Mamadou Tandja's second term expires later this year, and Niger's constitution blocks him from running again.

Tuesday's referendum seeks to lift that ban and give the 71-year-old president another three years in office. Mr. Tandja says there is wide-spread popular demand for him to extend his time in power to complete several large infrastructure projects, including a Chinese-financed oil refinery, a hydroelectric dam and a French uranium mine.

That support does not extend to Niger's parliament or its constitutional court. Both bodies said changing the constitution to end presidential term limits would be illegal. Both bodies were dissolved by President Tandja, who is now ruling by decree.

He is also facing opposition from within his ruling coalition, including the Alliance for Democracy and Progress party which says changing the constitution would create a "grave threat to peace and stability."

But supporters of the president are campaigning for a big turn-out Tuesday as a vote of confidence in Mr. Tandja's leadership.

Prime Minister Seini Moumarou says he hopes that on August 4 there is not a single person who stays home and does not vote in the referendum.

Trade unionists have organized a series of strikes to protest the referendum. Security forces used tear gas to break up two anti-referendum rallies, and a private radio station was closed for broadcasting an opposition statement about the referendum.

The Economic Community of West African States has threatened President Tandja with sanctions if he changes the constitution to run again. The European Union says it is delaying the payment of funds meant to help support Niger's budget.

President Tandja has responded to outside criticism by saying that he serves the people of Niger, not international opinion.