By Clement Uwiringiyimana
KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda's lower house of parliament debated on Wednesday a constitutional change that would allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term, a move opposed by the United States and other donors.
The amended constitution will still be a draft that faces a referendum, but is expected to pass.
Parliament met after a petition calling for the changes was signed by 3.7 million people who backed a president credited with rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Critics say the government stifles the media and opposition voices, a charge it denies. A bid by the main but tiny opposition Democratic Green Party to block a constitutional was rejected by the Supreme Court.
The debate about term limits has flared in several countries in Africa. The United States, a major donor to Rwanda, has said it was concerned by moves to change the constitution.
During Wednesday's debate, parliament backed an amendment to reduce presidential terms to five years from seven, while it would let Kagame to serve his current seven-year term until 2017. Remaining amendments were to be put to a vote on Thursday.
The amended constitution will still set a two-term limit in general, but will make an exception for the existing president. Article 167 notes the public petition of support and says the current president - Kagame - can seek another seven-year term.
Article 167 has yet to be voted on.
Kagame has not said explicitly that he wants to run again but has made clear he is open to persuasion.
Once the lower house passes the constitutional changes, the upper house of Senate will also vote on the draft. But, like the lower house, it is dominated by allies or supporters of Kagame.
In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza sparked months of protests and a failed coup when he decided in April to run for a third term. Opponents said it violated the constitution and deal that ended a civil war there. A court ruled he could run again.
Former rebel leader Kagame won international and domestic praise for rebuilding Rwanda after the chaos of the 1990s. Some 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were massacred before rebel forces led by Kagame ended the genocide.
(Reporting by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Edith Honan, Larry King)