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Rwandans Vote in Controversial Presidential Poll

  • Michael Onyiego

Voting is underway in Rwanda's second presidential election since the 1994 genocide. Though four candidates are vying for the nation's highest office, many expect President Paul Kagame to be reelected by a wide margin.

Accusations of political repression have surrounded Rwanda's presidential election, but the country was quiet as early voters cast their ballots. Long lines had formed outside polling stations before dawn, but voting has proceeded largely without incident.

Rwandans will choose one of four candidates to lead the small central African nation for the next seven years. Nobody expects current President Paul Kagame, however, to receive much of a challenge. Mr. Kagame has effectively ruled the country since taking power with the Rwandan Patriotic Front after the 1994 genocide. He is credited with quickly rebuilding the country, fighting corruption and attracting international investment.

The former rebel leader enjoys broad support from the Rwandan people, but critics say that support is manufactured.

International organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch, have accused Mr. Kagame of silencing opposition and suppressing independent media. Some observers say the repression of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front has made democratic elections impossible.

Mr. Kagame, though, says such claims are unfair. Voting at a school in Kigali, the Rwandan leader expressed confidence that Rwandan voters would be heard.

"If the election is to be democratic we have to look at a number of things," said Kagame. "First of all, what the people of Rwanda think about it, in terms of their being free to choose and to express themselves. So when I see the turnout - the turnout has been huge in the last three weeks - when I have seen how they have expressed themselves, all that has been done and said by the people of Rwanda give an impression, to me, that the process has been very democratic. I am just waiting for another moment to see the results."

Mr. Kagame promised to consolidate the gains of his first term, if elected, and said his plan included pursuing international investment, strengthening healthcare, and empowering women.

The president's three challengers are relatively unknown in Rwanda and their platforms are virtually identical to Mr. Kagame's. Critics say the purpose of the three candidates is to provide the semblance of opposition.

But Mr. Kagame said his detractors had unfairly condemned him for the weakness of his opponents.

"Let them create the opposition," said Kagame. "In fact, maybe that is what they are trying to do by telling some lies about the situation here. But maybe they can fill the vacuum that they think is there. Do they want an opposition that I should create, or do they want an opposition that should emerge naturally. I do not feel that I am responsible for what the critics are talking about."

The provisional results of today's poll are expected early Tuesday, but President Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front has planned a celebration rally to begin just after polls close.