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Rwanda’s Electoral Commission Set to Hold Referendum

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 file photo, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame waves to the crowd before speaking at a baby gorilla naming ceremony in Kinigi, northern Rwanda.

Rwanda’s electoral commission says it is ready to hold next week’s national referendum that could allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017. After that, he could also be eligible to run for two additional five-year terms.

Kagame, 58, has ruled Rwanda since his army ended the 1994 genocide and ousted Hutu extremists from power. The referendum dates are December 17 for the diaspora and December 18 for Rwandans inside the country.

Charles Munyaneza, executive secretary of the National Electoral Commission, said more than four million Rwandan voters requested the referendum, and the commission is only trying to fulfill its mandate to deliver a free and fair electoral process.

“When we talk about readiness in election management, we mean registration of voters, we are talking about the distribution of voters cards; we are talking about acquisition of election materials; we are talking setting up polling stations; we are talking about recruitment and training of election staff, including election volunteers, and of course we are talking about mobilization of voters to vote. So, we think we are ready," said Munyaneza.

Rwanda’s small but main opposition – the Green Party – had said the commission did not allow enough time to educate Rwandans about the vote.

Munyaneza responded, “We have not heard that from that member of the opposition. He or she has never approached us, but as far as we are concerned we’ve put in place everything possible to reach the population. We are putting in place structures; we are using the media; we are using our partners in the civil society. And we think the people of Rwanda are ready. After all, everybody knows that over four million Rwandan voters requested for the referendum. We think those four million voters are ready for the referendum."

Munyaneza also said informing the public about the referendum has been easier because Rwanda is a one language nation.

But some say the government is wasting money to hold a referendum instead of having a coronation for President Kagame, especially if over four million Rwandans have agreed to change the constitution.

“We are talking of four million, but we have got 6.4 million register voters in Rwanda. So we’ve got more than 2.4 million Rwandan voters who are registered and who officially did not petition. And even if all of them had petitioned, we still would have to vote to decide,” he said.

Munyaneza said the ballot has a single question where voters will decide in a yes or no process whether they approve the amendment to change the constitution.

The United States and European Union have said the referendum undermines democratic principles in Rwanda. But Munyaneza said his commission is carrying out the wishes of Rwandans.

“We are trying to fulfill our mandate as an independent institution, and the people of Rwanda are looking up to us to deliver a free and fair electoral process in which they are able to cast their vote and decide their future. So, we actually don’t know what the people outside are saying. We are just listening to what the people of Rwanda are saying at the moment,” Munyaneza said.

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