The head of Rwanda's electoral commission said Friday that partial results from a referendum showed Rwandans strongly supported changing the constitution and allowing President Paul Kagame to run for as many as three more terms in office.
Friday's referendum asked for approval of an amendment to shorten presidential terms from seven years to five. But the amendment makes an exception for Kagame, allowing him to run for a third seven-year term and two more five-year terms after that.
Officials said that 98.1 percent of registered voters from 21 out of 30 districts, representing 70 percent of those registered, supported lifting term limits for Kagame. The president's backers celebrated the announcement in the capital, Kigali.
Current law requires Kagame to step down at the end of 2017. If the amendment is officiall approved as expected, and he continues to win elections, he could stay in power until 2034.
Kagame, 58, an ethnic Tutsi, commanded the rebel force that ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and ousted Hutu extremists from power. He served as vice president and minister of defense under President Pasteur Bizimungu from 1994 until Bizimungu's resignation in 2000. Kagame has served as president since 2000.
He is popular inside Rwanda, but critics accuse him of suppressing free speech and having no tolerance for dissent. The United States and European Union have cautioned that allowing him to stay in power would undermine democracy.
The U.S. State Department said last month that Kagame should step down as scheduled and help "foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda." The department spokesman, Mark Toner, did not say what steps the U.S. would consider if Kagame tried to hold on to power.
Efforts by leaders in other African countries to extend their rule, including in Burkina Faso, Burundi and Senegal, have led to violence.