Votes to decide whether leader can extend rule
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.
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.