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Rwandans to Vote on Changing Presidential Term Limits

A poll clerk looks on at a polling station at the Rwandan High Commission in Nairobi, Dec. 17, 2015. Rwandans abroad were voting on Thursday in a referendum to amend the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to rule until 2034.

Rwandans will vote in a national referendum Friday that could allow President Paul Kagame to remain in power for another 18 years. Observers predict a strong turnout and a vote in favor of the proposed constitutional changes.

The referendum is a chance to vote on several proposed changes to the constitution. But the main one would allow Kagame to stand for another seven-year term when his current term ends in 2017, and then for two additional five-year terms, allowing him to stay in office until 2034.

Some of his supporters suggest the government is wasting money with this referendum since millions of Rwandans have already petitioned for presidential term limits to be scrapped.

Also, Kagame has not made clear whether he intends to run again.

Millions back petition

But, according to the parliament, 3.6 million eligible Rwandan voters -- 60 percent of the electorate -- have backed this petition.

The one opposition party leader openly campaigning against the change, Frank Habineza, leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, said the petition was government inspired.

"We had the information it was started by some people in the cabinet, some ministers, in 2010," Habineza said.

Rwanda is widely regarded as a model of good governance in Africa.

While Habineza agrees that Kagame has been good for the country’s development, he believes he should not stay on after 2017.

"We believe that that would be a threat to peace and security. We believe he has given us steady progress in our country but for us to maintain that progress and economic development, we need to also respect our laws," Habineza said.

Suggests mixed record

But Carina Tertsakian, the Rwanda researcher for Human Rights Watch, said she sees Kagame's record as mixed.

"There have been real improvements (in Rwanda) in terms of development, in terms of access to public services, but in terms of respect for civil and political rights there are still really serious concerns," Tertsakian said.

She said she expects a yes vote on Friday but questions whether this might be influenced by restrictions on political rights.

Several opposition leaders and activists are currently in jail in Rwanda, and in recent years there have been attacks on opponents and critics of the government.

There have been some signs of a freer media lately, Tertsakian said with radio stations airing discussions on the referendum, for example.

Another analyst commented that the Rwandan public's participation in policymaking should not be underestimated.