Rwandans have voted overwhelmingly to change the constitution and allow President Paul Kagame to seek another term, provisional referendum results released Saturday showed.
Charles Munyaneza, executive secretary of the National Electoral Commission, said 98.4 percent of voters supported the proposed amendment. Turnout was high, with 98.3 percent of registered voters participating. Rwandans in the diaspora voted Thursday, while the entire country voted Friday.
Munyaneza said that "6,155,606 Rwandans voted yes and 100,863 Rwandans voted no. …The process has been peaceful mostly at the polling stations. Rwandans were very enthusiastic, and I think this is the first time that we have got that kind of voter turnout. We are impressed that youth, the students, really participated in their big numbers.”
FILE- Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 24, 2014.
Munyaneza said final results would be announced Monday, and that the electoral commission would then present its report about the poll to the relevant authorities.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Saturday that the United States was "disappointed" that the referendum was held on such short notice, and he called on Kagame to "enshrine his legacy by honoring his commitments to respect the term limits set when he entered office."
The U.S. and European Union had earlier denounced the proposed amendment as undermining democracy in the central African country.
The EU delegation in Kigali said Friday that there had been a lack of "sufficient time and space for debate" on the issue, with the date for the referendum announced on December 8 and the draft of the changes "only published publicly less than one day ahead of the vote."
The Rwandan constitution currently limits presidents to two terms, and Kagame’s second term ends in 2017. The constitutional change would allow him to run for a third seven-year term. After that, presidential terms will be shortened to five years, and Kagame would be eligible to run for two more terms, meaning he could serve until 2034.
His supporters hail Kagame as a liberator and the man behind Rwanda's transformation from a country on the brink of disaster to a nation of social and economic development.
Opposition groups, including the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, complained that they were not allowed to campaign against calls by millions of Rwandans who had petitioned parliament to amend the constitution.
In a letter to the media, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda said, “The National Electoral Commission also confirmed that campaigns were not permitted, meaning that the Party’s NO CHANGE campaign would be illegal. However, members of parliament were able to campaign for a YES vote. ... The Democratic Green Party will continue the democratic struggle and ensure that Rwanda will have sustainable peace, security and development.”
Responding to the opposition concerns, Munyaneza noted Rwandans' massive support for a vote on amending the constitution.
"As you are aware, over 4 million Rwandans had petitioned parliament. … So, if 4 million out of 6.3 million Rwandans eligible to vote had requested this amendment, then it means Rwandans knew what was taking place,” said Munyaneza. “There wasn’t much need for a month or two months of campaign.
"But whatever time was given, everybody had time to canvass for a yes or no vote. And as far as I know, some opposition political parties did it in the media."
Munyaneza also rejected criticism that that the election had been rushed, saying "we know countries where a referendum has been called in only one week, and people have turned up in those referenda. So I think it is not very peculiar to Rwanda."
Kagame, 58, has been in power since 2000, but has essentially ruled Rwanda since 1994, when his ethnic Tutsi rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, ended a genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority.
About 800,000 people had been massacred in Rwanda, the majority of them Tutsis.