KIGALI, RWANDA, AND JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — President Paul Kagame says he is ready to accept the will of the people in today’s Rwanda election.
“If [the Rwandese people] tell me that they don’t want me anymore, I will not hesitate to pack my bags,” he said recently.
But because Mr. Kagame’s government has prevented top opposition candidates from participating, the chances of him losing are slim to none, which Kagame himself hinted at while voting today. His three opponents on the ballot are seen as mere window-dressing for democracy.
“There should be no reason why I shouldn’t be one of the most likely winners,” he coyly told reporters as he cast his ballot in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. “Maybe I should win, I have no reason to believe that I should not come out of this well.”
Kagame said that voters were free to choose who they wanted, without pressure, and countered his image as a strong-armed despot.
“I see no problems, but there are some people who choose to see problems where there are not,” he 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.”
Critics, opponents sidelined
Running on the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party ticket, Kagame faces deputy speaker of parliament Damascene Ntawukuliryayo of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), senate vice-president Prosper Higiro of the Liberal Party (PL), and Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party of Peace and Concord. All three of these parties were part of Kagame’s RPF coalition in 2003, however, and none are seen as critical of his leadership.
“There are four presidential candidates who all get a fair chance to campaign,” Dutch ambassador Frans Makken told Reuters last month. “But the sheer size of the RPF, and the fact that it has seven years of successful socio-economic development to show for, makes it very difficult for the others to compete.”
Among three candidates barred from running in the election is Victoire Ingabire, an opposition candidate who was arrested this past spring and charged with promoting a “genocide ideology” after announcing her intention to run against Kagame. When her American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, flew to Rwanda to defend her, he was jailed for three weeks and charged with genocide denial before subsequently being released on medical grounds.
Ms. Ingabire denies the allegations against her, and her arrest has not silenced her criticism of the ruling elite. Pointing to the killing of journalists and opposition candidates such as Green Party vice president André Kagwa Rwisereka in July, and the attempted assassination of former Rwandan Army chief Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa in June, Ms. Ingabire says, “I am convinced that the government of Kagame was behind the killings. They were all people who criticized the government.”
“The stability in our country is based on repression,” Ingabire says in an interview with the Monitor.
“If Kagame stays there and does not change then Rwanda will go into chaos. We have to change and Kagame has to change.”