Rwandan president expected to win election handily; critics decry crackdown on opposition

By Max Delany, AP
Monday, August 9, 2010

Rwandan president expected to win election handily

KIGALI, Rwanda — President Paul Kagame called Rwanda’s election democratic and predicted victory after years of economic growth, though critics said political repression and attacks in the run-up to Monday’s vote ensured he faced no real competition.

The presidential election is only the second since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide when at least half a million people were slaughtered. Since then, Kagame has guided the country through a period of mostly peaceful prosperity, though the government cracks down harshly on dissent.

A former high-ranking member of Kagame’s inner circle told The Associated Press on Monday the government plans and orders assassinations of political opponents, a charge the government denies.

The chairman of Rwandan’s electoral commission, Chrysologue Karangwa, said voting went smoothly across the country and that polling stations saw a high turnout. Lines snaked from polling stations even before they opened. Streets were mostly empty as people observed a national holiday, and polls closed mid-afternoon.

A rally was scheduled in the capital, Kigali, for Monday evening, when the election results were expected to be announced. Kagame won election in 2003 with 95 percent of the vote.

The run-up to the campaign was marred by a series of attacks on outspoken critics of Kagame’s government, and other opposition politicians say they’ve been barred from participating. On the ballot box Kagame faces three opponents, but observers say the three are cosmetic stand-in candidates. Much of the sharpest criticism has come from ethnic Hutus against Kagame’s Tutsi-led government.

“What’s important to remember is that none of the opposition parties have been able to present candidates, so voters don’t actually have much of a choice,” said Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

One village an hour outside of Kigali visited by an Associated Press reporter showed what appeared to be voting irregularities. Two leaders in the village said they had woken people up in the middle of the night to force them to vote before polls opened at 6 a.m.. Three villagers told AP they had voted before 5 a.m., and one as early as 3 a.m.

Karangwa denied that any votes were cast before polls opened. He did however say that voting concluded by 9:30 a.m. in some locations. The villagers would not give their names for fear of reprisals and asked the AP not to identify the village by name. Results from one station in the village showed that more than 98 percent of ballots were cast for Kagame.

Kagame cast his vote along with his wife at a school in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, where he cast aside criticism of a crackdown.

“I see no problems, but there are some people who choose to see problems where there are not,” Kagame said. “They talk about fear, they talk about all sorts of things but they are not even patient enough to wait for Rwandans to speak.”

Ignace Habumugisha, who cast his vote in a soccer field in the capital’s largest Nyarimbo district, said he voted for Kagame because of his track record.

“Kagame has done a lot for the country like development and reconciliation. There has been a lot of changes in Rwanda,” Habumugisha said after casting his vote. “Everything was destroyed in the country. He has rebuilt the country.”

Many have hailed Rwanda’s positive transformation since the genocide that left at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Kagame’s three challengers are former partners in a coalition government formed soon after the genocide who have posed no real political threat.

The pre-election period was marred by suspicious attacks, all of which the Rwandan government denied involvement in.

The vice president of an opposition party that couldn’t get registered was killed in mid-July. In June, former army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa was shot and wounded outside his home in South Africa. Five days after the shooting in South Africa, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist at a critical newspaper in the capital, was shot dead outside his home in Kigali hours after publishing an online article linking Rwandan intelligence to the attack.

Former Rwandan external intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, who has been living in exile in South Africa since 2008, said the West supports Kagame because he is credited with ending the genocide and bringing stability but that the West should not support “such a dictator.”

“Actually, when people are oppressed, you don’t have stability,” he said in a telephone interview from his Pretoria home. “What’s the point if I survived genocide and I don’t have rights? I’m as good as dead.”

Karegeya said Kagame’s “political opponents have died at different times in different places, and they didn’t commit suicide.” He said they were assassinated and believes the government was behind the shooting of Nyamwasa.

Relations between Rwanda and South Africa have been strained since the shooting. Last week, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Rwanda.

Rwanda’s most prominent opposition politician, Victoire Ingabire, was arrested earlier this year and charged with genocide ideology. She was not allowed to run for president.

“The stability in our country is based on repression,” Ingabire, a Hutu, said in an interview before the election. “If Kagame stays there and does not change, then Rwanda will go into chaos.”

Tertsakian, who was kicked out of Rwanda earlier this year for what the government said was a falsified visa application, an accusation she denies, said a lot of discontent and resentment lies underneath the surface in Rwanda.

“Whether it’s going to come to a boil now or soon or later is an open question. I don’t think there would be an explosion of violence in the very near future, but it’s difficult to predict,” she said. “What is striking is that discontent increasingly cuts across ethnic lines.”

Kagame has tried to downplay the role of ethnicity in post-genocide Rwanda. People in the country rarely refer to themselves as Hutu or Tutsi and can face charges for speaking publicly about ethnicity.

If elected, Kagame will earn another seven-year term. He was elected president by parliament in 2000 and then by voters in 2003.

Associated Press reporter Donna Bryson contributed from Johannesburg. Jason Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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