The voting in Rwanda’s first democratic elections was completed peacefully on 25 August, and a landslide victory for the incumbent President Paul Kagame of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) has been declared. African Rights congratulates the people of Rwanda on their courage and commitment to democracy. They, their newly elected President, and concerned members of the international community should now all move forward in a positive spirit to focus upon the many social, economic and politica...read more
The voting in Rwanda’s first democratic elections was completed peacefully on 25 August, and a landslide victory for the incumbent President Paul Kagame of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) has been declared. African Rights congratulates the people of Rwanda on their courage and commitment to democracy. They, their newly elected President, and concerned members of the international community should now all move forward in a positive spirit to focus upon the many social, economic and political challenges facing the nation.
In a statement released the week before the poll, African Rights emphasised that while the genocide proved how people are mobilised by fear, for democracy to work, all concerned must now understand that voters will only be inspired by hope. We concluded:
"Experience across the globe shows that democracy is a fragile concept touted by many in the quest for power, but rarely delivered intact. No single political party, government or individual can create a democracy. Scrutiny, monitoring, open criticism and time are needed—and so is practice. If on the 25 August the majority of people can journey to the polling stations in peace and mutual tolerance it will be a good start."
Ultimately the poll did, in our view, deliver gains in this respect; political violence played no part in this election and given Rwanda’s history this must be seen as an achievement. As African Rights emphasised in its statement of 19 August, voters’ perceptions were bound to be coloured by the legacy of genocide and war, including ongoing concerns in relation to genocide justice, human rights and regional insecurity. Some caution and even hostility towards multiparty democracy, and the freedoms required to implement it, was therefore inevitable.
African Rights had called upon the candidates to collectively seize the moment to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the welfare of ordinary people of all ethnicities. It was nevertheless disappointing that both the campaigning and the reporting of the elections were dominated by concerns about “divisionism” so that little space was left for the articulation of practical agendas in relation to poverty, development, justice, regional security/ foreign policy, or HIV/AIDS. The result was that the quality of debate was narrow and at times lacklustre.
It is questionable whether the electoral process will have served to substantially invigorate national politics. And it remains to be seen whether the electorate believe their leaders will be accountable to them on a wide range of issues. As is so common in fledgling democracies, neither campaigning nor voting was entirely without risks or fears. This is not to suggest, however, as some human rights organisations and commentators argued prior to the elections, that the process itself was so flawed as to be unworthy of international funding. There was evident support for “free and fair” elections in the country as the determination shown by so many Rwandese individuals, businesses and organisations to help make up the shortfall in the budget of the National Electoral Commission illustrated.
African Rights was able to observe the voting at 13 polling stations, as summarised in a forthcoming paper. We cannot testify to events on a national scale, but our sample reveals only minor mistakes on the voting day which, given the scale of President Kagame’s victory, could not have affected the result. There was no evidence of intimidation at the polling stations we visited and no indication of a systematic effort to manipulate the result. Perhaps the most notable deficit, in fact, was the lack of international observers—despite over 1000 invitations issued, less than 100 were present.
Certainly there is scope for analysis of the context in which the elections took place—shaped by both historical and the events of the past year—and how this contributed to the voters’ choices. Indeed, there is scope for reflection upon the definition and implementation of democracy in Rwanda and beyond. But we should not lose sight of some favourable outcomes. There was a respectable turnout of voters in Rwanda’s first poll. We cannot be sure of the personal motivations of each individual in making their choice, but through their shared experience of voting in peace, they have defied their past. It is to be hoped that Rwanda will emerge from its elections more secure and with a greater confidence about its future.
* Rakiya Omaar is the director of African Rights. For a copy of African Rights’ statement of 19 August or to request an email copy of the forthcoming paper summarising our observations of the voting in Nyamirambo, Gikondo, Kanombe and Kicukiro in Kigali. Please email us at [email][email protected]