Rwandan politicians have backed a motion to let President Paul Kagame run for a third term in office, paving the way for a referendum to amend the constitution.
A similar move by President Pierre Nkurunziza in neighbouring Burundi has provoked violent protests and fears of renewed ethnic conflict in the combustible region, but observers have suggested that violent opposition in Rwanda would be stamped out quickly.
Mr Kagame, whose ruling party has controlled the country for the past decade, has not directly said he wants to run again. But he has said he is open to persuasion that the two-term limit in the constitution needs to be changed, and a petition to that effect has collected 3.8 million signatures.
The parliamentary speaker, Donatille Mukabalisa, said MPs had voted unanimously to back the petition, adding that a referendum would be called on whether to amend the constitution. “We’ve started the process to the referendum. We shouldn’t delay the process,” she told a news conference.
Yolande Bouka, a Nairobi-based researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, said there was no chance of protests in Rwanda.
“Dissent is very violently and swiftly repressed by the government,” she said. “Therefore the likelihood of protests as we saw in Burundi and Burkina Faso or even Senegal a few years ago is quite unlikely.”
The Green party leader Frank Habineza is opposed to the constitutional amendment and has challenged it through the courts.
“Why would they have to hurry? They have to wait for the Supreme Court to make its ruling,” he said.
Supporters of the petition said Mr Kagame was the right person to lead the country of 11.8 million.
“The petitioners hail president Kagame for having stopped the genocide and bringing quick economic recovery,” Jeanne d’Arc Uwimanimpaye, the deputy speaker of the lower house, said at the start of the debate.
Mr Kagame has won praise for the progress Rwanda has made since the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were killed. But critics accuse the 57-year-old of trampling on media and political freedoms.
As the minister of defence and then vice-president, Mr Kagame was widely seen as the power behind the throne even before he took the presidency in 2003, reportedly winning 95 per cent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with a similarly resounding mandate. The next elections are due in 2017.
Ms Bouka said the failure of leaders in Africa’s Great Lakes region to hand over power smoothly could endanger their achievements.
“Until this is possible in a country like Rwanda, all the strides, whether economic or developmental, will be temporary. Everything will be tested in terms of transition in Rwanda,” she said.
MPs who spoke during the session backed the abolition of the two-term limit. “We must listen. After the petitions of the three million, I don’t see anything else. This is the real model of democracy,” said Nkusi Juvenal, a legislator from the socialist party.