Paul Kagame
It is believed some 3.7 million Rwandans signed a petition asking the government to allow President Kagame to stay for a third term Reuters

Rwanda has announced it will hold a referendum on whether to amend presidential terms on 18 December. The government said Rwandans oversea will vote on 17 December.

The decision came after parliament supported a proposal to change Article 101 of the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in the 2017 election. It is believed that some 3.7 million Rwandans signed a petition earlier in October demanding the parliament to allow Kagame to take part in the election.

The leader has been president of Rwanda since 2001 and, at present, is bound by the constitution to step down, as he has served two consecutive seven-year-long terms.

Paul Kagame's political career

Kagame became the leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) armed wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), as the country had descended into a civil war which then sparked a genocide in which at least 800,000 people – mainly Tutsi and moderate Hutu – were killed in three months.

In the aftermath of the genocide, Kagame served as vice president and minister of defence until 2000, when he became president after being elected by government ministers and the national assembly.

The RPF became a political party while its armed wing was renamed the Rwandan Patriotic Army (now the Rwandan Defence Forces).

In 2003, Rwanda adopted a new constitution replacing a transitional one, and Kagame was re-elected as president. He won the election again in 2010.

Earlier this year, the senate approved a constitutional amendment draft that reduces presidential terms from seven to five years. The amendment maintains the two-term limit but makes an exception for Kagame, who can potentially run in 2017.

Should voters approve the constitutional amendments, Kagame could be re-elected in the next election and stay in power for two more five-year terms until 2034.

The leader has not yet made any statement regarding the future of his political career. Earlier in December, he said he will make a decision after the referendum. He also lambasted countries that criticised Rwanda - including the US, the country's biggest donor - for their attempts to change the constitution, arguing that this was an internal political affair.

Supporters and critics of third term

Supporters of the third term argue that Kagame should remain in power as he has been able to restore the country's crippled economy and lift thousands from extreme poverty since the 1994 genocide. The government also claimed that as millions of Rwandans called for Kagame's third term, a constitutional change would be the result of the population's will.

Critics argued that some Rwandans were forced to sign the petition. The opposition Democratic Green Party (DGPR) filed a lawsuit demanding Rwanda's Supreme Court halt any amendment, arguing the move is against democracy. The party also pointed out that Article 193 – concerning amendments of the constitution – does not allow the number of terms to be changed, but only their lengths. The court backed the parliament's proposal to amend the constitution, however. DGPR's President Frank Habineza told IBTimes UK the party will start a no-change campaign.

Christophe Bazivamo, vice president of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), told IBTimes UK people were not forced to sign the petition. He said: "I think it is not possible to force millions of people to sign a petition. People who have signed were actually happy to do so."

In an interview with IBTimes UK, Phil Clark, reader in international politics at Soas University, said that although the petition was "heavily orchestrated by the government", Rwandans are now experiencing social and economic stability. For these reasons, they would back a third-term bid.