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What I SAW: In Tiny Burundi, a Huge Vote

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What I SAW

Citizens of the small landlocked East African nation of Burundi headed to the polls on Thursday to vote on a referendum to change the constitution. Our East Africa bureau chief, Jina Moore, was there documenting the day and the mood of those voting for and against the changes.

A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Ciri, northern Burundi, on Thursday.Credit-/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesMay 17, 2018

NGOZI, Burundi — As many as five million people went to the polls in Burundi on Thursday to vote on a referendum to alter the country’s constitution. I came here as one of the few foreign reporters with a visa and accreditation to cover the scenes at the polls, where voters are deciding on some significant changes.

The biggest change of the new constitution would be the extension of the presidential term, from five years to seven years. Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been president of Burundi since 2005, is widely expected to use the new constitution — if it passes — to run in 2020. Under the new rules, he could stay in power until 2034 — and then run again (and again) after sitting out for just one term.

Most foreign correspondents were denied access, and two weeks ago the government suspended the BBC and Voice of America from broadcasting inside the country.

ImageCreditJina Moore/The New York Times

With help from local journalists, I visited polls in the northern province, home to both Burundi’s president and his biggest challenger, Agathon Rwasa, and I spoke with those casting their ballots. These ladies posed for a photo as they waited after the president left his polling station.

Supporters of the new constitution say it will make government more efficient, while critics say it gives the president near-total control.

While in Buye, in northern Burundi, I met this man who had just voted at the same poll where President Nkurunziza also voted. He said he believed the promises that a new constitution would bring more development because Mr. Nkurunziza already has.

CreditJina Moore/The New York Times

The voter cited free health care and schooling in particular. He didn’t get to go to school, but his granddaughter will.

Later, I met these ladies, who lingered after Mr. Rwasa had cast his ballot, about 15 kilometers from the president’s voting booth. A man who voted against the new constitution said his side could lose because women love Mr. Nkurunziza’s free maternal health care.

CreditJina

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