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Burundi Commission: Voters Backed Constitutional Changes

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza casts his ballot at a polling center during the constitutional amendment referendum at School Ecofo de Buye in Mwumba commune in Ngozi province, northern Burundi, May 17, 2018.

Voters in Burundi have approved changes to the constitution that could allow the president to stay in office until 2034.

The country's electoral commission said Monday that 73 percent of voters backed the changes in last Thursday's constitutional referendum.

The amendments extend presidential terms from five to seven years and effectively allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for two more terms after his current term expires in 2020.

They also create the position of prime minister and enable the government to do away with power-sharing agreements between Hutus and Tutsis.

In a statement Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the referendum process "was marred by a lack of transparency, the suspension of media outlets, and attempts to pressure voters."

Burundi suspended broadcasts by Voice of America and the BBC ten days ahead of the vote.

Nauert also said some of the amendments "run counter to the power-sharing principles of the Arusha Agreement," which ended Burundi's civil war.

Supporters of the changes argued they are necessary for stability in the central African country, which is still recovering from a civil war and political unrest in 2015 that prompted hundreds of thousands to flee the country.

Opponents said the changes are anti-democratic and designed to keep Nkurunziza in power. The 2015 unrest was sparked when the president chose to seek a third term, defying critics who said he was violating term limits.