KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — Rwandans have voted overwhelmingly to lift constitutional restrictions to allow President Paul Kagame to run for more terms in office, said the head of Rwanda's electoral commission as he released provisional results Saturday.
More than 98 percent of voters in 30 districts voted to lift term limits for Kagame, Mbanda Kalisa said.
"The final results will be released on Monday but this will not change much," Kalisa told journalists in Kigali. He said Rwandans who voted to maintain term limits were 1.7 percent.
More than 6 million registered voters participated in the exercise, representing a voter turnout of 98.28 percent, he said. "(The)voting process was peaceful," Kalisa said.
The provisional results surpass predictions by pollsters that 92 percent of Rwandans would support amending the constitution to remove the term limits.
Rwanda's political opposition criticized the referendum as undemocratic and the U.S., a key Rwandan ally, has opposed Kagame's bid to stay in power.
The White House expressed disappointment that the referendum was called on short notice without providing enough time for Rwandans to debate the amendment to lift term limits.
White House National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement Saturday saying the U.S. was concerned by "long-standing restrictions on peaceful assembly, association, and free expression in Rwanda" and urging Kagame "to enshrine his legacy by honoring his commitments to respect the term limits set when he entered office."
"By doing so, President Kagame would establish a credible foundation for democracy in Rwanda, reinforce the substantial progress that has been achieved towards sustained peace and prosperity for all Rwandans, and set a laudable example not only for Rwanda, but for the region and the world," Price said.
Kagame became president in 2000 after being Rwanda's de facto leader since the end of the country's genocide in 1994. He is credited with stabilizing the country and promoting economic growth after the mass killings, but critics say he is an authoritarian ruler who does not tolerate opposition and he is accused of human rights abuses.
Kagame, who has said he will announce his candidature "any time," joins a growing list of leaders in East and Central Africa who have prolonged their rule by changing the limits on presidential terms.
In 2005, Ugandan lawmakers changed that country's constitution, allowing President Yoweri Museveni to seek re-election in 2006 and 2011. He is running again in 2016.
Neighboring Burundi has political unrest that started earlier this year when President Pierre Nkurunziza won a third term that many oppose.
There have also been protests in Congo over efforts by President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power for 15 years, to prolong his time in office.