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Rwandan Political Environment Tense as Presidential Candidates Register - 2003-07-14

Candidates for Rwanda's upcoming presidential election began registering with the country's electoral commission Monday.

Four people have already expressed interest in becoming Rwanda's next president.

They include current president Paul Kagame and former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, who has been living in Belgium for more than five years after being dropped from the cabinet by Mr. Kagame. In addition, former government minister Jean Nepomuscene Nayinzira and a medical doctor, Theoneste Niyitegeka, have indicated they will run for president.

The prospective candidates have until Friday to register with the Rwanda Electoral Commission.

Presidential hopefuls will then campaign for several weeks before the election, which is scheduled for August 25. Parliamentary elections are to follow one month later.

This will be Rwanda's first presidential election since the 1994 genocide in which up to one million people were killed when Hutu extremists indiscriminately killed members of the Tutsi ethnic group and Hutus who supported them.

After the genocide, the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front, headed by Mr. Kagame, took power to deal with the genocide's aftermath and restore order.

Since then, arrangements have been made to allow for multi-party elections. But despite these changes, observers are worried that these elections may not be free and fair. Human Rights Watch said in a report in May that the current government is trying to weaken its main competition, the Democratic Republican Movement, and other political parties.

The director of the Central Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, Francois Grignon says the government has two main concerns. He says the ruling party wants to stay in power, and it also does not want political parties to re-ignite ethnic violence.

"It's led to a situation where, in effect, all liberties, all political freedoms are extremely limited, extremely restricted, and the system is very repressive," he said.

The government maintains that it is open to the upcoming elections. A spokesman for the Rwandan army told a regional newspaper that the army would not endorse a particular candidate after opposition parties expressed fears that the army would take action to ensure that Mr. Kagame remains in power.