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Questions Remain as Kagame Returns to Power in Rwanda

  • Michael Onyiego

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been returned to power with an overwhelming victory in presidential elections. The leader has another seven years to build upon his impressive programs of social and economic development. The recent campaign, however, leaves lingering doubts about the president's democratic credentials.

The celebration continued into the early hours Tuesday morning, as Rwandans waited for official confirmation of President Kagame's guaranteed victory. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front organized a campaign-style rally in Kigali's Amahoro Stadium to celebrate the outcome as votes were being counted.

Celebrating results

The event was essentially a nine-hour concert. Popular Rwandan musicians entertained the president's faithful as they awaited the results. The announcement of the provisional results, broadcast live to the tens of thousands in the stadium, sent the crowd into a frenzy around 4:00 am Tuesday.

The National Electoral Commission's executive secretary, Charles Munyaneza, announced the results. He said that President Kagame "had cruised to victory, winning handily in all eleven provinces and receiving an estimated 92 percent of the overall vote."

The announcement was perhaps only surprising in that the president received slightly less than his 95 percent victory in 2003.

Peaceful vote

It was a fitting end to an exceedingly smooth electoral process. Monday's vote proceeded peacefully and efficiently. Voters cast their ballots early, and long lines were dealt with swiftly. There were no major difficulties reported, and the work of the National Electoral Commission - or NEC - was given an initial stamp of approval by African Union observers shortly after the polls closed.

The group's chief observer, Anil K. Gayan, praised Rwanda and the NEC for the administration of the poll. "The Rwandan voter has attained a degree of critical maturity which is remarkable," said Gayan. "With regard to the technical aspects of the process, I think that we have found nothing irregular and nothing to criticize."

Concern over tactics

But for many, there was a feeling of unease, which belied the perfection of the electoral process. During the vote, there were rumors of polling stations opening early and intimidation at the ballot boxes. In a neighborhood of Kigali, residents reported that members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front were patrolling before 6 o'clock in the morning, using bullhorns to wake Rwandans and remind them to vote.

Rwanda has touted its electronic registration system, but voters were required to stamp thumbprints on their ballots, raising concerns that people voting against the president could be easily traced. Gayan said he raised the issue with the National Electoral Commission, but was assured its motives were not "sinister."

There also were accusations in the lead-up to the election that President Kagame's government was silencing opposition groups and repressing independent media. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch expressed concern of the suspension of opposition newspapers, such as Umuseso and Umuvigizi. Criticism increased after the murder Umuvigizi's deputy editor in June.

Marked progress amid unease

The arrest and detention of opposition figure Victoire Ingabire garnered further condemnation. Ingabire, a Hutu who recently questioned the traditional narrative of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, was charged with genocide denial, a crime in Rwanda.

Even critical international observers say publications like Umuseso and Umuvigizi were less professional media than sensationalist newspapers. Many average Rwandans also viewed Ingabire as a fringe candidate.

Rwanda has made remarkable strides in the 15 years since the genocide. But the president's consolidation of power has raised questions about its democracy. Mr. Kagame has used this power to push reforms during his 15 years in power, but many wonder what will happen when the popular president is gone.

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