By Clement Uwiringiyamana
KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwandan lawmakers backed a motion on Tuesday to let President Paul Kagame run for a third term in office, paving the way for a referendum to amend the constitution.
A similar move by the president of neighboring Burundi has provoked violent protests and fears of renewed ethnic conflict in a combustible region. One analyst said any similar opposition to the move in Rwanda would likely be stamped out quickly.
Rwanda's Kagame, whose ruling party has controlled the country for the last decade, has not directly said he wants to run again.
But he has said he is open to persuasion that the two-term limit in the constitution needed to be changed, and a petition to that effect has collected 3.8 million signatures.
Members of parliament voted unanimously to back the petition, said speaker Donatille Mukabalisa, adding that a referendum would be called on whether to amend the constitution.
"We've started the process to the referendum. We shouldn't delay the process," Mukabalisa told a news conference.
Yolande Bouka, a Nairobi-based researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, said there was no chance of such protests in Rwanda.
"Dissent is very violently and swiftly repressed by the government," she said. "Therefore the likelihood of protests as we saw in Burundi and Burkina Faso or even Senegal a few years ago is quite unlikely."
Green party leader Frank Habineza is opposed to the constitutional amendment and has challenged it in court.
"Why would they have to hurry? They have to wait for the Supreme court to make its ruling," he said.
Supporters of the petition said Kagame was the right person to lead the population of 11.8 million.
"The petitioners hail president Kagame for having stopped the genocide and bringing quick economic recovery," Uwimanimpaye Jeanne d'Arc, vice speaker of the lower house, said at the start of the debate.
Kagame has won praise for the progress Rwanda has made since the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. But critics accuse the 57-year-old of trampling on media and political freedoms.
Bouka said the failure of leaders in the Great Lakes region to hand over power smoothly could endanger their achievements.
"Until this is possible in a country like Rwanda, all the strides whether economic or developmental, will be temporary. Everything will be tested in terms of transition in Rwanda," she said.
Lawmakers who spoke during the session backed abolition of the two-term limit.
"We must listen. After the petitions of the 3 million, I don't see anything else. This is the real model of democracy," said Nkusi Juvenal, a legislator from the socialist party.
(Additional reporting and writing by Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; Editing by Hugh Lawson)