By Muganwa Gonzaga
Paul Kagame is re- elected easily on his record
The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) Chairman, Paul Kagame, and his well-placed campaign machine drew unprecedented crowds wherever they went this election season. It opened on July 20 at Amahoro stadium in Kigali and got bigger in the countryside. Even in unexpected areas like the north western districts of Nyabihu and Rubavu, a region that had been the stronghold of former president Juvenal Habyarimana and his Akazu clan, the cheering and dancing for Kagame showed the depth of RPF’s reach.
The crowds that greeted Kagame indicated, on the surface at least, how much the Rwandan leader has served as a unifying force in post-genocide Rwanda.
The party now enjoys ultra dominance and has transformed from the old movement, set up by refugees seeking to return to Rwanda, to a mass movement that encompasses a wide variety of supporters. In preparation for this second multiparty election in the history of the country, the RPF seemed well prepared given the vast resources at its disposal.
On arrival at the well organised rallies, as party songs blared, Kagame would routinely thank locals for their good work in building the country, and implore the audience to continue on the right path. His speeches promised few specifics but concentrated on the higher ideals of hope, self-confidence and achievement. He reserved his criticism for foreign media and bodies who he claimed, ‘don’t understand us’ If his detractors cannot recognize the support he enjoys, said Kagame, they can reach for the nearest rope and, ‘go and hang’
After seven years as elected president, Kagame has been credited with doubling the economy, lowering crime, improving food security, empowering women to positions of influence and building up Rwanda’s social welfare system. Nevertheless, these accomplishments have been overshadowed in recent weeks by the shooting of former Rwandese General, Kayumba Nyamwasa, in South Africa; the mysterious murder of Green Party official Andre Kagwa Rwisereka; the arrest of politicians and the closure of two critical newspapers.
In preparation to compete for these elections a number of political parties were created, with only the Social Party (PS)-Imberakuri managing to be officially recognised. However, PS-Imberakuri later failed to compete in the election after an internal squabble led to a split and the ouster of its founding chairman, Bernard Ntaganda, who is now in prison facing charges that include inciting violence. The Democratic Green Party led by Frank Habineza failed to get registered as did the United Democratic Forces UDF-Inkingi led by Victoire Ingabire. Ingabire’s controversial stance on the RPF’s behavior in ending the genocide and treatment of Hutus led to criminal charges that kept her movements restricted.
It is the long established parties, such as the Social Democratic Party (PSD), led by its secretary general and deputy speaker of parliament Ntawukuliryayo Jean Damascene, the Liberal Party (PL), led by Senator Higiro Prosper and the Party for Progress and Concord (PPC), led by Senator Mukabaramba Alvera, that did enter the race.
During campaigns and two public debates that were broadcast live on state media and FM radio stations, the parties discussed issues such as population growth, unemployment benefits, teacher salaries and trade deficits, instead of hurling accusations at each other, as is common in African elections.
On the trail, as the incumbent maintained an inspirational message, the other main candidates brought out issues relevant to their party bases. PL, a party known to command a disproportionately high level of genocide survivors in its leadership, including Higiro himself, promised to deal with the issue of compensation for genocide victims; PSD promised more open public debate on major policy changes like education, which has been interpreted as an appeal to those disgruntled by the shift from French to English in Rwandese society.
Inside Rwanda the situation was not nearly as controversial or repressive as the outside media made it sound. On the streets of Kigali and across the country side, apart from the posters, colors and giant billboards of the dominant RPF, the sort of tension that tends to characterise African elections was absent. The population know with certainty that Kagame is not going anywhere in the short term and confidence and support in him is widespread. Moreover, in a country where individuals rarely talk politics, it is clear that there is a keenness to avoid disruptions to the peaceful order and coexistence prevailing today.
On voting day people turned up in large numbers and reports from the countryside indicated that the majority of voters had cast their ballots within three hours of polls opening. The election campaign and voting proved largely calm and there was a great sense of relief that this election did not turn into a contest rotating around issues of ethnicity.
For Kagame’s supporters, the buoyant mood from the campaign will re-energize the RPF base. The impressive level of organisation seen throughout this election is representative of the way the party’s leader has run government in the previous seven years. The use of technology was omni-present and planning for any eventuality happened well ahead. Even the victory party was scripted well before polling centers opened.