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Rwanda Voters Approve Draft Constitution - 2003-05-27

Rwanda's National Electoral Commission says voters in the East African country appear to have overwhelmingly approved a draft constitution, according to preliminary results of Monday's nationwide referendum.

Rwanda's Electoral Commission chief, Chrysologue Karangwa, said that with more than half the ballots counted, 90 percent of voters are supporting the proposed charter.

He estimates that 98 percent of Rwanda's four million eligible voters turned out Monday to vote. The approval of the draft opens the way for the first multi-party presidential and parliamentary elections in a country still struggling to unite, nearly a decade after the 1994 genocide.

Hutu extremists carried out the genocide, which killed nearly a million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The slaughter ended after the Tutsi rebel army under Paul Kagame overthrew the extremists and established a transitional government.

The new constitutional framework attempts to prevent such horrors from happening again. Among other things, it bans political parties from inciting ethnic hatred and forbids one-party dominance in government.

But critics say the charter also contains provisions designed to keep Mr. Kagame's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party firmly in control.

One article in the constitution prohibits political parties from campaigning at grassroots level. Critics say this provision gives the ruling party a huge advantage over fledgling ones, which may not have enough money to campaign on a provincial or national level.

Francois Grignon, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, which monitors global conflicts, says he believes many people voted yes without knowing all of the facts.

"The final draft of the constitution was produced and circulated very late, only two weeks before the actual date of the vote," he said. "Second of all, there was no debate. There was nobody who had the possibility to oppose the political project of the constitution."

Rwanda's electoral commission chief, Mr. Karangwa, dismisses the criticism. He says he believes the constitution accurately reflects the hopes and opinions expressed by millions of ordinary Rwandans.