Rwandan lawmakers voted Tuesday in support of a constitutional change to allow strongman Paul Kagame a third term in power as president, backing a petition signed by millions of citizens.
The crowded parliament, packed with members of the public who had come to watch, cheered and chanted Kagame's name after all lawmakers present in both the lower and upper houses voted in the first step of the process for constitutional change.
"I want to thank all members of parliament for showing support to the people's wishes," parliament speaker Donatilla Mukabalisa said.
Any change must be also passed by a national referendum.
Over 3.7 million people -- well over half of the voters -- signed a petition calling for a change to Article 101 of the constitution, which limits the president to two terms, according to Rwandan media.
"There was a request that we engage the people and consult them about the amendment of 101, and other articles," Mukabalisa added. "I promise you we are going to fast track the process as requested."
Parliament was crammed to capacity Tuesday with both lawmakers and the public, with the two chambers holding separate, parallel debates.
Nkusi Juvenal, a member of parliament from the Social Democratic Party (PSD), said that "3.7 million Rwandans from different constituencies and walks of life have spoken, we are their representatives here, we have no option but to... listen to their pleas."
At one point, lawmakers and the public chanted slogans of support for Kagame.
"Paul Kagame, oyee! (oh yes)," they shouted.
The public were invited to watch the debate.
"I wanted to participate, so that is why I am here -- I am very proud," Alpha Mundendke said, a 23-year old student in parliament for the first time.
Elections in 2017
But Jean-Claude Ntezimana, from Rwanda's tiny but main opposition group, the Green Party, had complained that parliament should not vote on a decision to press ahead with any constitutional changes until their challenge opposing it had been heard in court.
Kagame, 57, has been at the top of Rwandan politics since 1994, when an offensive by his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels put an end to a genocide by Hutu extremists that left an estimated 800,000 people dead, most of whom were Tutsis.
Source: Daily Monitor online (ug)