, KIGALI, Rwanda, Dec 18 – Rwanda began counting votes Friday after polls closed in a referendum to amend the constitution allowing President Paul Kagame to rule until 2034, with few expecting the changes to be rejected.
The proposed amendments have been denounced by Washington and Brussels as undermining democracy in the central African country.
But Kagame, 58, who could be in power potentially for another 17 years, told reporters after casting his vote earlier on Friday that “what is happening is the people’s choice”.
“I did not apply for this. You go and ask Rwandans why they want me,” said Kagame, who has run the country since 1994.
Long queues formed during polling, some arriving before centres opened soon after dawn, with some 6.4 million registered to vote. Polls closed at 3:00pm (1300 GMT) with counting beginning almost immediately, an AFP reporter said.
“Yes, yes, yes..,” election officials said as they read the votes out to count.
“We want our president to continue to lead us. Look how the country is safe,” Emmanuel Ntivamunda said after casting his ballot, among those who thanked the president for the country’s economic growth, which is over six percent a year according to the World Bank.
“Paul Kagame has brought peace,” said Eridigaride Niwemukobwa, 67, holding up her voter card proudly, while admitting she did not know for how long Kagame could run Rwanda if the constitutional changes pass.
Kagame declined to say whether he plans to run again if the changes to the constitution are passed. “We will see when the time comes,” he said.
– By popular demand? –
Provisional results are expected late on Friday, with final results to be announced before Monday, National Electoral Commission (NEC) executive secretary Charles Munyaneza has said.
Some voters said they were not clear about the exact constitutional changes they were voting on, describing the ballot as a simple choice about whether to endorse Kagame or not.
“What interests me is that the president is reelected,” said Saidi Alfred, one of hundreds who voted in a school in Kigali.
The amendment would allow Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017, at the end of which the new rules take effect and he will be eligible to run for a further two five-year terms.
Kagame has run Rwanda since his ethnic Tutsi rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), ended a 1994 genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority, when an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the vast majority of them Tutsis.
The issue of long-serving rulers clinging to power has caused turmoil in Africa, where some leaders have been at the helm for decades.
Rwandan lawmakers, however, insist the proposed changes are the result of popular demand, although Kigali has been criticised for stifling freedom of speech and the RPF has a pervasive presence at all levels of society.
In response to criticism, Kagame has said that “other nations” should not interfere with internal affairs or his people’s wishes.
In an editorial on Friday, Kigali’s pro-government New Times newspaper said it expected the changes to pass.
“The referendum vote can only position him (Kagame) toward a path of choosing to continue stewardship of the country that he has shaped from the ashes of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi to the current glitter that it is,” it said.
– Open dissent ‘rare’ –
The amendments brought criticism from the United States and the European Union as well as the country’s tiny opposition Green Party.
With the referendum announced just over a week ago, the Green Party protested it was impossible to organise a counter campaign at such short notice.
Some Rwandans said they had boycotted the vote as the outcome was already known.
“We decided not to go to vote because we know the results already, so we should not waste our time,” said a young Rwandan in Uganda, where those abroad could vote on Thursday.
Carina Tertsakian from Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that after “years of government intimidation… open expressions of dissent are rare,” and that approval of the referendum was expected.
“As one man told us: It would be stupid to vote ‘no’ because it won’t change anything,” she added.