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Counting under way in Burundi vote on extending president's rule

President Pierre Nkurunziza wants 'yes' votes in a referendum to potentially extend his reign until 2034.

Pierre Nkurunziza

Counting is under way in Burundi after voters cast their ballots in a referendum that could extend President Pierre Nkurunziza's rule until 2034.

Polling stations closed at 14:00 GMT on Thursday and the Independent National Election Commission has 48 hours to announce the results.

About 4.8 million people, just under half the population, signed up to vote, the commission said.

The referendum asks voters to say "yes" or "no" to constitutional amendments that would allow Nkurunziza to seek two more seven-year terms after his current one expires in 2020.

The changes will be adopted if more than 50 percent of ballots cast choose "yes".

Earlier, Nkurunziza issued a presidential decree criminalising calls to abstain from voting, with a penalty of up to three years in jail.

'Intimidation of all sorts'

The referendum comes three years after Nkurunziza sought a controversial third term, triggering a political crisis that has killed 1,200 people and forced 400,000 from their homes.

The 54-year-old former sports teacher and ethnic Hutu leader first came to power in 2005 at the end of a civil war that killed 300,000 people. He was re-elected unopposed in 2010 after the opposition boycotted the vote.

Nkurunziza's main opponent, Agathon Rwasa, condemned what he called irregularities in the referendum.

"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.

But presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe on Twitter praised the "peaceful climate" in which many turned out.

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

Michael Amoah, fellow at UK's London School of Economics, said a lot of people were "under intimidation and fear". 

He attributed Nkurunziza's decision to call the referendum to a similar decision by Paul Kagame in neighbouring Rwanda, which broadly has the same ethnic make-up as Burundi.

Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, has ruled Rwanda since a genocide in 1994, where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu hardliners.

"Nkrunziza wants to be there in power for as long as Kagame is there," Amoah said.

Denis Ndayishemeza, a Burundian human rights activist who lives in Uganda, said changing the constitution to extend Nkurunziza's time in office could deal another blow to hopes of peace in the country.

"My expectation from this referendum is only that the dictatorship is going to be enforced, and killings are going to continue, and some of the opposition groups are going to be convinced that the only way to solve the Burundi conflict is the use of force," he said.

However, Ines Nshimirimana, a government supporter, said "there is nothing to be afraid about".

By voting the Burundian people were exercising their independence and "I love it," she added.

Citegetse Janvier, a businessman, said he voted in Thursday's referendum "so that we can get the leaders we deserve".

"This referendum gives me the choice to choose leaders that can change my life," he said.


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