Burundi is gearing up for a landmark referendum on controversial constitutional changes that could potentially allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034.
On Thursday, voters will be asked to consider scrapping a current constitutional limit on two presidential terms each spanning five years.
If approved, Nkurunziza – in power since 2005 – would be able to seek two more seven-year terms in office.
According to the east central African country’s electoral commission, more than five million people have registered to take part in the referendum.
For the amendment to be implemented, more than 50 percent of cast ballots need to vote in favour.
The new constitution also gets rid of one of two vice-presidents and shifts powers from the government to the president.
The new text makes no changes to the sensitive issue of ethnic quotas, which currently states that government and parliament must be made up of 60 per cent Hutus and 40 per cent Tutsis.
However, it opens the possibility for the Senate to review and possibly modify this balance. The quotas are seen as crucial to peace after a 1995-2003 civil war, which killed more than 300,000 people.
The vote is taking place in tightly-controlled conditions, and parties which call on voters to boycott – rather than cast a Yes or No ballot – risk up to three years’ in jail.
General Evariste Ndayishimiye, secretary-general of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, warned foreign governments not to interfere in the referendum, during a speech in the capital, Bujumbura.
“It is now up to Burundians to decide their future and there should be no interference from outside countries,” he said, according to The East African.
On its website, CNDD-FDD called on all people to vote Yes in the referendum, saying the amendments will increase transparency, inclusiveness and independence.
The campaign period, like the preceding three years of unrest triggered by Nkurunziza’s controversial but ultimately successful run for a third term, has been marked by intimidation and abuse, according to human rights groups.
Burundi’s exiled opposition has called for a boycott, describing the referendum as the “death knell” to the agreement that helped pave the way for the end of the war.
“The government has not even officially communicated to us the draft of the revised constitution so that we can examine it and know for sure which text will be submitted for public approval or disapproval,” Georges Nikiza, spokesman for the National Rally for Change, RANAC, was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.
Opposition parties were allowed to rally for the first time since the start of the 2015 political crisis, drawing massive crowds during their No campaigns.
But critics say this was merely to provide a veneer of inclusivity.
“People seen as opposed to the referendum have been killed, kidnapped, beaten up, illegally arrested and held by state agents,” the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said on Tuesday.
On April 20, police said eight people had been arrested with “the goal of disrupting the next referendum with the use of firearms”.
Earlier in May, Burundi’s press regulator suspended broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) and warned other radio stations, including Radio France International (RFI), against spreading “tendentious and misleading” information.
A peace deal, signed in the Tanzanian city of Arusha in 2000, helped end the war and included a provision that no leader could serve more than two five-year terms.
A crisis was triggered after Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, arguing before polls in July 2015 that he had only been directly elected by the people once.
The president’s decision to seek re-election led to weeks of violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Bujumbura. His third bid for office also triggered an attempted coup, which was quashed.
The former rebel leader won the disputed election, which was boycotted by the opposition, and was widely criticised as neither free nor fair.
At least 1,200 people were killed in the violence and more than 400,000 displaced. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has said it is investigating alleged state-sponsored crimes against humanity in the country.
In 2017, Burundi became the first country to leave the Hague-based court.
Nkurunziza’s third term in office will come to an end in 2020.