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Kigali (AFP) - Rwandans abroad voted Thursday in a referendum to amend the constitution allowing President Paul Kagame to rule until 2034, a day ahead of the main vote inside the country.
The constitutional amendment, which was already passed by parliament last month, reduces presidential terms to five years and maintains a two-term limit, although it makes an exception for Kagame.
Few expect the changes to be rejected, although they have been denounced by Washington and Brussels as undermining democracy in the central African country.
The amendment would allow Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017, at the end of which the new rules come into force and he will be eligible to run for a further two five-year terms.
"The voters began voting abroad at 7:00 local time," election commission spokesman Moise Bukasa said.
Some 37,000 people are registered to vote overseas, while another 6.4 million are eligible to cast their ballots across the nation in the main vote on Friday.
"I came to vote... because we want our president to continue leading us," said Annet Mukayiramba, 22, who voted in neighbouring Uganda's capital Kampala.
In Belgium, Rwanda's former colonial ruler, the embassy published photographs showing a few dozen people waiting to vote.
- A lightning move -
Kagame has run Rwanda since his ethnic Tutsi rebel army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), ended a 1994 genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority, in which an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the vast majority of them Tutsis.
The issue of long-serving rulers clinging to power has caused turmoil in Africa, where some heads of state have been at the helm for decades.
Thursday's vote was taking place at embassies and consulates around the world.
"Members of the Rwandan diaspora will set the pace as the national referendum kicks off to decide the constitutional amendments," Kigali's pro-government New Times newspaper wrote in an editorial on Thursday, saying it expected the changes to pass.
"Initial indications show that the whole exercise will be a wrap-up in favour of changing the constitution," the paper added, saying people will choose whether, "they stick with a winning team and formula, or should they sail in uncharted waters."
The proposed changes have been criticised by the United States and the European Union, as well as by the country's tiny opposition Green Party.
The date for the referendum was only announced on December 8 with the Green Party saying it was impossible to organise a counter campaign to oppose the move at such short notice.
- Result 'already known' -
The New Times made clear that criticism would not affect the outcome of the referendum.
"The world should watch and listen attentively and learn that there is no better template, no arm-twisting or threats, can defeat the will of the people," it said.
Voters, including those in Kampala and in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, said they had not seen the exact text of the constitutional changes they were voting on, describing the ballot as a simple choice about whether to endorse Kagame or not.
"Apart from what we have seen in the media, we have not seen the physical copy of what we have voted on," said a Rwandan student who voted in Kampala and did not want to give his name.
Other Rwandans said they had boycotted the vote as the outcome was already known.
"We decided not to go to vote because we know the results already, so we should not waste our time," said a young Rwandan in Uganda.
"Kagame wants to stay in power... he can have what he wants."
Provisional results are expected as early as Friday evening soon after the main vote closes, but few expect the constitutional changes to be rejected.
"In Rwanda, independent civil society organisations are weak due to years of government intimidation, threats and administrative obstacles. Open expressions of dissent are rare," said Carina Tertsakian from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Alongside pressure or fear of opposing Kagame, self-censorship -- prevalent among many Rwandans -- may help determine the outcome of the referendum," she added.
"As one man told us: It would be stupid to vote 'no' because it won't change anything."