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Why is Burundi holding a referendum?

President Pierre Nkurunziza seeking constitutional change potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2034.

Burundi announced on Tuesday the official launch of campaigning for controversial constitutional changes that could potentially allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034.

The proposed amendment is expected to ask voters on May 17 to consider scrapping a current constitutional limit on two presidential terms each spanning five years.

If approved, Nkurunziza - in power since 2005 - would be able to seek two more seven-year terms in office. 

According to the east central African country's electoral commission, more than five million people have registered to take part in the referendum 

What is the context?

The constitution of Burundi only allows a president to be elected twice, for a total of 10 years in power.

A crisis was triggered after he decided to run for a third term, arguing before polls in July 2015 that he had only been directly elected by the people once.

Nkurunziza's decision to seek re-election led to weeks of violent clashes between protesters and security forces in the capital, Bujumbura. His third bid for office also triggered an attempted coup, which was quashed. 

The former rebel leader won the disputed election, which was boycotted by the opposition, and was widely criticised as neither free nor fair. 

At least 1,200 people were killed in the violence and more than 400,000 displaced. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has said it is investigating alleged state-sponsored crimes against humanity in the country.

In 2017, Burundi became the first country to leave the Hague-based court.

Nkurunziza's third term in office will come to an end in 2020. 

Free and fair? 

Twenty-six parties, almost all aligned with the ruling CNDD-FDD party, have been authorised to campaign and take part in the referendum.

But Burundi's exiled opposition has called for a boycott, describing the referendum as the "death knell" to the agreement that helped end Burundi's 1995-2003 civil war, which killed more than 300,000 people.

The vote is taking place in tightly-controlled conditions, and parties which call on voters to boycott - rather than cast a Yes or No ballot - risk up to three years' in jail.

Opposition leaders accuse the government of stifling debate and failing even to issue the official draft of the proposed change.

"The government has not even officially communicated to us the draft of the revised constitution so that we can examine it and know for sure which text will be submitted for public approval or disapproval," Georges Nikiza, the spokesman for the National Rally for Change, RANAC, told AFP news agency on Tuesday.

On April 20, police said eight people had been arrested with "the goal of disrupting the next referendum with the use of firearms".  

The United States on Tuesday denounced the "violence, intimidation, and harassment" against people thought to oppose the referendum.

Washington said it was concerned about the "non-transparent process" of changing the constitution in the referendum.


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