Burundi Votes on Extending Presidential Terms Amid Crackdown

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(Bloomberg) -- Burundians began voting in a referendum that could allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to rule until 2034 in the East African nation that’s been roiled by three years of unrest.

More than 5 million people, about half the population, have registered to vote in a plebiscite on sweeping changes to the constitution, including extending presidential terms to seven years from five. Burundi is already facing sporadic violence, sparked by Nkurunziza’s bid for his current mandate in 2015, and critics argue he could run for re-election twice more under the new rules.

While some groups have been allowed to campaign for a “no” vote, most of the main opposition is either cowed or in exile, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The local media has been muzzled and radio operations of the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of American were recently suspended.

Nkurunziza, who’s been president since the end of a civil war in 2005, is the latest leader in the region accused of trying to cement his hold on power, mirroring steps in Uganda and Rwanda. His bid for another term three years ago -- which opponents said violated peace accords -- spurred initial protests that have to this day been followed by a crackdown and sporadic militant attacks, with hundreds of people dead and more than 400,000 forced from their homes.

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