By Philon Bondenga
BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - A referendum held in Congo Republic to decide whether the president can legally stand for a third consecutive term should be canceled due to low turnout, a senior opposition leader said on Monday.
An opposition boycott of Sunday's referendum means the country's veteran ruler, President Denis Sassou Nguesso, is likely to have won voters' support, paving the way for him to run in an election next year and potentially extend his decades-long rule over the oil-producing central African country.
"It (the turnout) totally discredits the referendum. Either they annul it or else he will impose a dictatorship and the Congolese will not accept it," said opposition leader Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, secretary of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy party.
"The smart thing would be to annul the referendum," he told Reuters by telephone.
Witnesses said logistical problems had partly hampered the voting in Brazzaville on Sunday morning but that turnout had picked up later in the day. There was little information about the rest of the country.
They said the counting of votes was proceeding smoothly on Monday.
"We are satisfied to see that the poll was conducted in security. That permitted all residents of Brazzaville to have the chance to go to their polling stations and express their choice without worries," Pierre Cébert Ibocko Onanga, prefect of the city, told reporters.
Sassou Nguesso ruled Congo from 1979 until 1992, when he was defeated in a presidential election. His rule resumed five years later after his forces defeated the then-president in a brief civil war.
Although he won presidential elections in 2002 and 2009, both were marred by accusations of fraud. Term limits as well as his age bar the 71-year-old leader from running again under the current constitution.
Sassou Nguesso is the latest African president to try to prolong his grip on power by changing the constitution. Several other such efforts have provoked violence and four died in Congo last week when security forces opened fire on protesters.
Last October, Burkina Faso's leader of 27 years was toppled by protests and in July the president of Burundi won a third term amid violent protests. Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also sought constitutional change.
(Additional reporting and writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Gareth Jones)