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Report: Rwanda Should Ease Restrictions On 2003 National Elections - 2001-10-15

In 2003 Rwanda will hold its first national elections since the 1994 genocide. A new report says the government of Rwanda needs to relax its control over public life if the polls are to have any credibility.

There was relief when the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized power in Rwanda in 1994, ending the genocide in which about 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

The new military government promised to restore democracy to Rwanda via elections in 2003.

That process began in March this year, with district elections.

Senior analyst Francois Grignon, of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy research organization, says he was disappointed with the district poll. Mr. Grignon says the process was so tightly controlled that he maintains no genuine opposition candidates were allowed to stand.

"There was a screening and there was a preparation of the elections, which did not allow other candidates than those who had been rubber-stamped by the government to actually contest, especially for the executive positions within the local authorities," he says. "If consensual democracy means that the political debate is actually handled before the electoral contest in such a way that it does not lead to a real competition then there is no democracy at all."

In a new report, titled Consensual Democracy in Post Genocide Rwanda, the International Crisis Group urges the international community to pressure Rwanda's government to liberalize political activity.

The report notes that the military dominates public life and there is little open criticism of the government, either in the media or by opposition figures. The Rwanda government argues that allowing a range of opinions would be dangerous in a country struggling to come to terms with its bloody past.

But Mr. Grignon says dissent is simply being driven underground or outside Rwanda's borders.

"Opponents to the regime have to flee the country or to join in rebel movements outside the country or in the Congo and no chance to express a different view," he says. "All the good policies that the government has been implementing - including the organization of the elections, national elections, presidential and parliamentary, in 2003 - will lack the credibility because they were not implemented in an environment that actually allowed a fair contest to take place," he says.

Mr. Grignon says greater freedom of expression would strengthen Rwanda's reconciliation process and enhance its chances of a peaceful future.

He says the international community's involvement in reconstruction projects gives it the leverage to make this plain to the Rwandan government.