The Rwandan parliament has voted to eradicate presidential term limits from their constitution. Over 3.7 million people signed a petition to ban presidential term limits. The change is now being put to a referendum. President Paul Kagame has said that it is up to the people to decide.
On the flip side of the debate, human rights groups have claimed that the Rwandan government is cracking down on the opposition and silencing the media. The pro-Kagame newspaper New Times reported that hundreds of people showed up to watch the historic parliamentary debate on the issue.
Those in favor say Mr. Kagame “[led] the struggle to stop the 1994 genocide,” according to New Times.
According to the BBC, “The small opposition Green Party has been the only dissenting voice calling for the constitution not to be altered to allow for a third term, and petitioning instead for a single presidential term to be changed from seven to four years.” But the Green Party does not have much of a voice in the media and is only supported by a small minority of Rwandans.
The Green Party went to court to try to stop the move to change the constitution, but it was unable to obtain a lawyer. The party has been given until 29 July to find legal representation.
Neighboring Burundi has seen violent rioting in opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza who will seek a third term in the coming election.
Mr. Kagame has been hailed for giving cause to rapid economic growth during his time as president (he is currently serving the second of two 7-year terms). He has not openly declared that he would like to run for a third term, but he is open to the idea of the constitution being changed—if, as he claims, it is what the people want. A popular leader among his people, this is a wise tack to play, and he will probably see reelection to a third term if the constitution restraints are amended, which in all probability it looks like they will be.
Nkusi Juvenal, MP of the Social Democratic party said, “3.7 million Rwandans have spoken, we have no option but to listen to their pleas.”
The debates in parliament went off well in advance of the 29 July date for the Green Party to find an attorney about which Green Party leader Frank Habineta had to say, “We are disappointed that parliament could not wait for the Supreme Court ruling on July 29.”
At the forefront of Rwandan politics since 1994 (when an offensive he orchestrated put an end to the Rwandan genocide which sent 800,000 to their graves), Mr. Kagame became president in 2000. Taking 95% of the vote in 2003, he won again in 2010 with a similar majority. (What any European or American politician wouldn’t give for those kind of numbers, one trembles to think.) The next elections will be held in 2017.
With tensions rising in the Congo and Burundi over similar changes to electoral laws, it will be interesting to see how this plays out for Rwanda. Going way back, Mr. Kagame has said he will leave office and retire at the end of his term in 2017. He said, “Our constitution is clear on term limits. I have no intention, and no desire, to disrespect the constitution.” But things change.
Mr. Kagame is currently 57 and will be 59 in 2017, relatively young for a head of state. Back in April he said he was certainly against changing the constitution to allow a third term, but he is now singing a different tune. As for the results, only time will tell.