Rwandans will go the polls on 18 December to decide on a constitutional amendment that will allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third consecutive term in office.
The constitutional amendment was passed in the Rwandan senate in November and reduces the presidential term from seven to five years while still maintaining a two-term limit. However, the amendment does not take immediate effect and makes an exception for Kagame ‒ he will be allowed to run in 2017 for a third seven-year term, at the end of which the new rules will come into force. Potentially Kagame can then run for another two terms and could theoretically remain in power until 2034.
Long the darling of Western powers that have hailed him as a visionary, the move has drawn criticism from various countries and institutions, including staunch ally the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), who have warned that the amendment undermines democratic principles in the central African country.
While Kagame has lashed out at foreign players for interfering in Rwanda’s internal affairs he is expected to win the referendum comfortably, as almost 60% of voters signed a petition earlier this year calling for constitutional changes to be drafted that would allow him to run for a third term.
The presidential public relations machinery is, therefore, punting the move as a response to “popular demand” that he stay in power and, while Kagame has not yet indicated whether he will indeed run for re-election, it seems unlikely that he will act contrary to so-called popular will if he wins.
For now he has told the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) that he will only “take a stand after the referendum” and under current law he is due to step aside in 2017.
Having been in power in Rwanda since 1994, when the RPF helped end the ethnic genocide by Hutu extremists in which an estimated 800 000 people (mostly Tutsis) were massacred, Kagame is broadly credited with changing the country’s fortunes, but sceptics are concerned that this latest change may be less positive.