Presidential hopefuls in Rwanda have wrapped up their campaigns as the country prepares to go the polls Monday. Despite challenges from three opposition leaders, President Paul Kagame is widely expected to be returned to office.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame ended his re-election campaign Saturday in front of 50,000 supporters just outside the capital Kigali. During the rally, speeches in support of Mr. Kagame were punctuated by songs and cheers praising his leadership as well as performances by popular Rwandan musicians.
The official campaign period for Monday's poll came to a close Sunday. Local media are barred from election coverage until the beginning of the vote and the four presidential candidates can do nothing further to sway voters.
But Saturday, supporters were out in full force for the man who has governed the country since the 1994 genocide.
In front of the crowd, draped in the red, white and blue of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Mr. Kagame thanked the people for their support during his campaign, saying he had big plans for the small central-African nation.
Back in Kigali, the final rally of Social Democratic Party candidate Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo was a more modest affair. In front of a few-thousand supporters, Ntawukiriryayo appealed to Rwandans for their vote. The PSD representative presents perhaps the most significant challenge to Mr. Kagame, but he is unlikely to cause much worry to the president, who was elected in 2003 with 95 percent of the vote.
The challenges from candidates Prospero Higiro and Alvera Mukabaramba are equally inconsequential. Observers note the platforms of the three opposition parties are virtually identical to that of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. In 2003, all three groups supported Mr. Kagame in Rwanda's first presidential poll since the genocide and critics have derided them as ruling party puppets in place to provide the appearance of competition.
Though Mr. Kagame seems to enjoy a near-universal mandate, many international observers say his regime has actively suppressed real opposition. The senior Rwanda researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, Carina Tertsakian says such tactics have secured the president's re-election.
"If you speak to anybody in Rwanda, it is a foregone conclusion. So everybody will tell you there is absolutely no doubt that the Rwandan Patriotic Front and President Paul Kagame will be re-elected," she said,"What we are seeing is concerted efforts on the part of the government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front to completely marginalize and eventually exclude any meaningful opposition. That is what happened the last two times and that is what is happening again now."
In April, opposition figure Victoire Ingabire was arrested by Rwandan authorities and charged with genocide denial, a serious crime in the central African nation. Ingabire, who had been living in exile, returned to Rwanda earlier in the year to launch her campaign for president, but was unable to register for the poll.
Her arrest sparked significant protests from groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But Rwandan authorities say Ingabire was linked to Hutu rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation Rwanda and some see her as a fringe candidate.
More grisly accusations have recently added fuel to the international fire. Rwandan security agents are suspected in the failed assassination of exiled Rwandan General Faustin Nyamwasa in South Africa last month. Rwanda has denied involvement, but South Africa has recalled its ambassador in protest.
The murder of Democratic Green Party vice-president Gakwe Rwisereka has also stoked opposition fears. Rwisereka was discovered days later nearly decapitated last month near the Burundian border. While the Rwandan Patriotic Front has not been directly implicated in the killing, Human Rights Watch believes Rwisereka's death was politically motivated.
All of these incidents have led international observers to doubt the Rwandan democracy as well as the credibility of Monday's vote.
Critics say President Kagame has manipulated the legacy of the 1994 genocide to tighten his grip around the country. But the embattled president has hit back, saying the international community has no right to criticize his leadership.
Whether or not such claims are justified, President Kagame will almost certainly retain his mandate tomorrow and keep Rwanda on its present course.