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Burundi Voters Back Constitution Extending Presidential Term

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BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Burundi’s voters approved a new Constitution that extends the presidential term from five to seven years, according to provisional figures released on Friday, handing a major victory to President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Mr. Nkurunziza, who beat a two-term limit under the old Constitution through an electoral technicality to take a third term as president, is widely expected to run again, in 2020.

The outcome “opens a chapter of harsh dictatorship, where the president will be beyond any other institution,” Agathon Rwasa, who led the campaign against the new Constitution, said ahead of the provisional results.

Government officials, on the other hand, characterized the new Constitution as an emblem of national sovereignty and a path to a more efficient government.

“People should not see this as allowing the president to have some particular power, but to give the president power to be a full president,” said Jean Claude Karerwa, Mr. Nkurunziza’s spokesman.

Preliminary figures indicate that more than 80 percent of voters approved the change, after a campaign that critics said was undertaken in a climate of intimidation and abuse.

“There’s a risk in voting no,” said Evariste Ngayimpenda, who leads an opposition faction of the Uprona political party. “But there is a bigger risk in not voting at all.”

Opposition leaders said votes from the referendum on Thursday had been counted in many parts of the country without their observers present. The national election commission has not released official figures and has not said when it will do so. The figures released so far were compiled by journalists and civil society observers who had fanned out at polling stations across the country.

In addition to extending the presidential term, Burundi’s new Constitution will outlaw extradition, an article widely seen as taking aim at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the court, in October, shortly after a United Nations report found evidence of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and sexual violence in the years since Mr. Nkurunziza took a third term in office.

But the court opened an investigation two days before Burundi’s withdrawal became formal, and can still legally conduct it.

International observers also expressed concern about changes to the country’s ethnic quotas, which grew out of the peace process that ended an eight-year civil war and are meant to ensure proportional representation for the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa populations.

The new Constitution allows the country to consider abolishing quotas entirely in 2025 and effectively removes the quota requirement for the country’s intelligence services. Diplomats are concerned that the changes could stoke ethnic tensions and create new grievances.

Burundians across the political spectrum, however, rejected that interpretation. People in a range of professions said that political party membership works the way ethnicity once did, determining one’s access to jobs, education and other opportunities.

“Ethnicity is not our problem,” Mr. Rwasa, the opposition leader, said. “Good governance is.”

Leaders in four political parties noted that their memberships drew from the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi.