Rwandan lawmakers back petition to have President Paul Kagame get more time in office

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KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwandan lawmakers on Tuesday voted in support of a petition to remove presidential term limits from the country's constitution, starting a process that could see President Paul Kagame extend his rule beyond two terms.

A national petition had urged lawmakers to remove term limits, which would open the way for Kagame to seek re-election at the end of his current term in 2017. A parliamentary committee will now consider the proposal to remove term limits, and later it may be voted on in a national referendum.

Kagame became president in 2000 after being the country's de facto leader since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Kagame is credited with turning around Rwanda's economy in the years since the genocide, but critics say he is an authoritarian ruler who does not tolerate opposition. Many of his former comrades have fled the country, saying their lives are threatened.

Members of Rwanda's ruling party, however, voiced strong support for Kagame.

The Democratic Green Party, Rwanda's only credible opposition group, had opposed plans to amend the constitution. The party had lodged a petition with the country's Supreme Court seeking to block the move to remove term limits. The party's president, Frank Habineza, said Tuesday that he was disappointed that lawmakers could not wait for the Supreme Court's decision that is expected on July 29.

If term limits are removed and Kagame runs again, he would join a growing list of regional leaders whose governments have jettisoned presidential term limits. In 2005, Ugandan lawmakers removed term limits, allowing President Yoweri Museveni to seek re-election in 2006 and 2011. He is expected to run again in 2016.

Burundi also currently faces political unrest over President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in elections set for July 21.

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