Votes to de­cide whether leader can ex­tend rule

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Eloge Willy Kaneza and Rod­ney Muhu­muza Eloge Willy Kaneza and Rod­ney Muhu­muza are As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers.

BUJUMBURA, Bu­rundi — Bu­rundi’s pres­i­dent joined long lines of vot­ers Thurs­day in a ref­er­en­dum that could ex­tend his rule until 2034, de­spite wide­spread op­po­si­tion and fears that the coun­try’s years of deadly po­lit­i­cal tur­moil will con­tinue.

“I thank all Bu­run­di­ans who woke up early in the morn­ing to do this no­ble pa­tri­otic ges­ture,” Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza said af­ter cast­ing his bal­lot in his home prov­ince of Ngonzi.

Nku­run­z­iza had cam­paigned force­fully for the con­sti­tu­tional changes that in­clude ex­tend­ing the pres­i­dent’s term from five years to seven. That could give him an­other 14 years in power when his cur­rent term ex­pires in 2020.

He is the lat­est in a num­ber of African lead­ers who are chang­ing their coun­tries’ con­sti­tu­tions or us­ing other means to stay in of­fice.

Nku­run­z­iza’s op­po­nents say he al­ready has ruled longer than the con­sti­tu­tion al­lows. More than 1,200 peo­ple have been killed in protests in this East African na­tion since he de­cided in April 2015 to pur­sue a dis­puted third term.

Ob­servers in re­cent days have ex­pressed alarm at re­ported vi­o­lence and in­tim­i­da­tion of the ref­er­en­dum’s per­ceived op­po­nents, in­clud­ing threats of drown­ing and cas­tra­tion.

A pres­i­den­tial de­cree crim­i­nal­ized calls to ab­stain from vot­ing Thurs­day, with a penalty of up to three years in jail.

Bujumbura, the cap­i­tal, had long lines of vot­ers as se­cu­rity forces were de­ployed across the city. Five mil­lion peo­ple across the coun­try had been regis­tered to vote.

“I just came be­cause I am told those who won’t vote will be pun­ished,” one teacher said while wait­ing to vote in the cap­i­tal, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity out of fear for her safety.

While vot­ing ap­peared to go smoothly in most ar­eas, ac­tivist group iBu­rundi re­ported al­leged in­tim­i­da­tion. In the cen­tral prov­ince of Karuzi po­lice “ar­bi­trar­ily ar­rested” a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of op­po­si­tion group Amizero y’Abarundi who was there to ob­serve the vot­ing, iBu­rundi said.

Nku­run­z­iza’s main op­po­nent, Agathon Rwasa of Amizero y’Abarundi, con­demned what he called ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the vote.

“In­tim­i­da­tions of all sorts are hap­pen­ing. There are some peo­ple who are go­ing even to the vot­ing booth to tell peo­ple how they must vote. This is con­trary to the ethics of democ­racy and its spirit,” Rwasa told re­porters af­ter vot­ing.

Berthier Mu­gi­raneza / As­so­ci­ated Press

Bu­run­di­ans line up to cast their votes on a con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum in Buye in north­ern Bu­rundi. Changes could ex­tend Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza’s rule until 2034.

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