Burundians to Vote on Changes to Constitution

Burundians head to the polls Thursday to vote yes or no on proposed changes to the constitution. The ruling party says the changes are aimed at shaking off vestiges of colonialism. The opposition says they are designed to extend the president's term in office.

Campaigns have ended in Burundi, and now both sides are hoping they will carry the day come Thursday.

The East African nation has been stuck in a political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for and won a third term in 2015, in defiance of critics who said he was violating a two-term limit in the constitution.

The government says to avoid another dispute, the constitution must be changed.

The proposed amendments would change presidential terms from five years to seven, and in effect allow President Nkurunziza to run for two additional terms, potentially keeping him in power until 2034.

They would also allow the ruling party the power to fire an elected member of parliament who is found to be breaking the country's laws and constitution.

For a bill to pass the legislature, it would need the approval from a simple majority of lawmakers, compared to 80 percent in the current constitution.

After the constitution is amended, Burundi will be more stable because this new constitution promotes democracy and fights impunity," said Nancy Mutoni, who is in charge of communication of the ruling party CNDD FDD. "It gives the people the voice, their will and wishes are in the constitution. So they will have more trust in the institutions more than ever because before it was discussed else where, it was discussed by politicians only the people were not consulted.

The 2000 Arusha agreement and the 2005 constitution brought an end to Burundi's civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people.

The Arusha agreement was designed to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis, and ensure the groups share power.

The International Federation for Human Rights said Tuesday that the proposed constitutional changes threaten to upset the balance of power and peace the country has enjoyed in the last decade.

Agathon Rwasa, a former presidential candidate who is urging Burundians to vote "no" on Thursday, says the changes would generate instability.

These amendments if its adopted we just generate more troubles in the country instead of stability. So we better look forward and try to get laws which are there to respond to the general interest of the nation not just for the sake of group of people or individual," he said.

Rwasa and his team have complained of harassment and intimidation during campaign period.

In Arusha it was agreed for the laws to change the country must be in a state of peace and stable," said Dieudonne Bashirahishize, a member of the Burundi Bar Association and council member of the East African Law Society. "But if you look at the current situation and the environment this referendum is being conducted, it's conducted in a state of fear and intimidation. People cannot express themselves and those who oppose the constitutional changes are getting killed.

Human rights groups have blamed the ruling party youth wing, known as Imbonerakure, of attacking, intimidating and killing opponents.

Source: Voice of America