KIGALI (Reuters) - Senior members of Rwanda's ruling party have endorsed a change in constitution so President Paul Kagame can seek a third term in office, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) said on Monday.
A bid by neighboring Burundi's president to be re-elected to a third term next month triggered weeks of violent protests by opponents who said the move violated the constitution. But analysts do not anticipate a similar eruption in Rwanda if Kagame runs again, citing his stronger grip on power.
About 3.6 million people have signed a petition urging parliament to change the constitution but the effort has been tainted by media assertions that some of Rwanda's 11.8 million people were forced to do so by officials.
Rwanda's constitution limits presidents to two seven-year terms. Kagame, who was re-elected with a landslide in 2010, said in April that the constitution had been drawn up by the people and they would determine any changes to the charter.
Kagame has not said if he would support the move. In early April, he said he disagreed with initiatives to amend the constitution but was "open" to being convinced otherwise.
Critics accuse Kagame, 57, of trampling on media and political freedoms. But he has also won international praise for the progress made since the 1994 genocide toward transforming Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020.
Burundi was racked by unrest after President Pierre Nkurunziza's announcement on April 25 that he would seek a third term. However, protests have largely died down in the approach to the July 15 presidential election.
The RPF issued a communique backing a constitutional change after about 600 high-ranking members held a two-day retreat on the outskirt of the capital Kigali this weekend.
"Based on the wishes of Rwandans and party members that have been recently expressed, we support that the (constitution)... should be amended," the communiqué said.
Kagame said local political leaders should not force anyone to sign the petitions. "If the allegations that some people have been forced are true, that’s a concern and you should also have that concern," Kagame told RPF members.
(Reporting by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)