By Clement Uwiringiyimana
KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda's lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to allow President Paul Kagame to extend his rule beyond a second term that ends in 2017 and possibly stay on until 2034, a move opposed by the United States and other donors.
Draft amendments to the constitution approved by the lower house still have to be backed by the upper house of senators and also put to a referendum, but they are not expected to stumble at either stage.
Parliament, dominated by Kagame's backers, debated the issue after a petition calling for changes was signed by 3.7 million supporters of the rebel-turned-president who is credited with rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda's main but tiny opposition, the Democratic Green Party, tried to block the amendment to extend Kagame's term, but a court rejected the bid. Critics say the government stifles opposition media and politicians, a charge officials deny.
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.
The lower house speaker, Donatille Mukabarisa, said Article 172 of the amended constitution, which would allow Kagame to extend his rule, was supported by all 75 lawmakers present. The lower house has 80 seats, but some lawmakers were absent.
Under the amendments approved after debates on Wednesday and Thursday, presidential terms will be cut to five years from seven and the limit of two terms remains, but an exception is made for the current president, namely Kagame.
Article 172 allows Kagame to serve out his seven-year term that ends in 2017 and also to seek a third seven-year term after that. Even beyond that he could seek two more five-year terms, a lawmaker said, explaining the amendment.
Kagame, who could stay thus in power until 2034, has not said explicitly he wants to run again but has said he is open to persuasion.
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.
In Congo Republic, voters backed a change to allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso to run for a third consecutive term. The opposition had called for a boycott of that vote.
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.
(Writing by Edmund Blair Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)