Long lines of Rwandans queued to vote Friday 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 told reporters after casting his vote 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.
He declined to say whether he plans to run again if the changes to the constitution are passed. “We will see when the time comes.”
People came in huge crowds to vote, some queueing from before dawn with polls opening at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).
“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.
“There is no secret, I will vote yes,” said Saidi Alfred, waiting in a line of around a hundred people to vote at a school in Kigali as polls opened.
Rwandans will be voting “100 percent yes”, Emmanuel Ntivamunda said after casting his ballot. “We want our president to continue to lead us. Look how the country is safe.”
– By popular demand? –
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,” Alfred said.
The amendment would allow Kagame, 58, to run for potentially another 17 years — starting with 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.
Overseas voting among some 40,000 registered Rwandans took place on Thursday, but on Friday some 6.4 million people are eligible to cast their ballots. Polling stations will close at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT).
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.
Earlier this year, some 3.7 million people signed a petition calling for constitutional changes to allow Kagame to stand again.
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 date for the referendum only announced on December 8, the Green Party protested it was impossible to organise a counter campaign at such short notice.
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 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 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.