KIGALI, RWANDA —
Rwandan President Paul Kagame led Friday's presidential election with more than 99 percent support in early returns, the country's election commission said.
In a nationally televised broadcast, the commission's executive secretary said more than 80 percent of the country's 6.9 million registered voters had cast ballots.
In July, Kagame told a political rally that "the day of the presidential elections will just be a formality." The massive lead in the preliminary results set the stage for his third term in office.
"I'm very excited" about the initial results, said Kagame supporter Ester Kabaera, 55, a businesswoman. "Obviously, he is going to win. He's the only president who can win, who can rule this country."
At the national headquarters of Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front party, political leaders, supporters and donors watched election results on televisions as they came in district by district.
"Tonight we are very, very, extremely happy because he accepted our request [to lead the country]," medical student Fred Namania, 30, said at the event. "And we are looking forward to a lot of things being done in the next seven years."
In power for nearly 20 years
Kagame has been in power for 17 years. A 2015 constitutional measure, approved by 98 percent of voters, could allow Kagame to remain in power until 2034.
"I feel like President Kagame should lead us for [more] decades," Namania said.
Other Kagame supporters told VOA they weren't looking for a president for life.
"At the end of the [new] seven-year term of his excellency, Paul Kagame, someone will continue after him," Kagame supporter Joseph Zorondera said after casting his ballot at the Mbandazi Primary School outside Kigali. "We need a good leader in our country now to continue to secure the country, to help the people of Rwanda and to continue to develop the country for the next seven years,"
Voting was calm as people trickled into the school, nestled in the hilly outskirts of the sprawling capital.
Valerian Musengamana, the polling station chief, told VOA that people were "very happy with the activities of the election. They are really satisfied."
The East African Community — a regional intergovernmental organization comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda — sent international observers to monitor the polls. The European Union did not. Representatives of local observer missions told VOA they hadn't encountered any significant issues and that the voting appeared to be progressing smoothly.
Opposition presidential candidate Frank Habineza of the Green Party told VOA that some of his party's observers had been denied access to polling stations, but after the National Election Commission was informed of the problem, 95 percent of them were permitted to monitor the voting process.
Habineza was one of two challengers Kagame faced in his re-election bid. Independent Philippe Mpayimana was also on the ballot.
Few of their supporters would agree to be interviewed at the polls.
"I chose [the Green] Party simply because of its good platform," said voter Charles Ndamage, with electoral commission officials watching nearby. "The manifesto presented by Habineza was very interesting to me — for instance, the fact that he wants to develop the country by reducing the step between rich people and poor people."
IN PHOTOS: Rwanda's election
Endorsements for Kagame
Nine of the 11 political parties permitted to register in Rwanda endorsed Kagame. Four other presidential hopefuls were disqualified by the electoral commission. The government and ruling party brushed off allegations from human rights groups that authorities restricted freedom of expression and stifled political opposition.
Kagame is widely credited with stabilizing the country after a 1994 genocide.
"They [the opposition candidates] are good but … I don't think any of them will do better than Paul Kagame. Because we have seen for the last few years that he has been on, the changes. It's really a big change. It's obvious," said voter Imelda Batamoliza.
Kagame's supporters pointed to developments like improved roads, more community connections to clean water and recently built schools.
Government officials said they expected to announce final results over the weekend.