Kigali, Rwanda – It took until almost 4 a.m. Tuesday for the National Electoral Commission to release the first batch of preliminary results for the Rwanda election. But everyone already knew what the result would be a long time ago.
With one-third of Rwanda’s districts counted after polls closed at 3 p.m. Monday, incumbent President Paul Kagame has 92.9 percent of the vote. His nearest contender had 4.9 percent.
Full preliminary tallies aren’t expected until tomorrow, but that didn’t stop Kagame supporters from celebrating the victory last night.
Tens of thousands packed into Kigali’s main soccer stadium and danced ecstatically to his campaigns pop-song anthem, “Tora Kagame,” which means “Vote Kagame” in the local language, Kinyarwanda. When Kagame arrived after midnight – waving his baseball cap and dancing robotically – the crowd surged forward, cheering their candidate like he had already won.
His supporters argue that Kagame’s crushing victory represents real popular support for the leader who has transformed this country into what some call the Singapore of Africa. But opponents say the elections were sown up months ago, when genuine opposition was stifled. Some opposition parties were barred from running, independent newspapers were shut down, and critics of Kagame were arrested. One journalist and one opposition leader were also killed in Rwanda in recent weeks, although Kagame’s government denies having anything to do with the killings.
African Union Observers Say Vote Was Clean …
At a press conference several hours after polls closed, African Union observers – never known for being overly critical – said that the election had been run with typical Rwandan efficiency and that there was no evidence of irregularities.
Only the second presidential elections in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan electorate had shown great “political maturity” as they queued patiently to cast their votes, African Union observers said.
While election observers gave the polls an initial clean bill of health, there were claims that some voters had been woken up the night before the election, marched to the polling station and forced to vote for Kagame before voting officially opened.
… But Was it Fair?
While most international observers agreed that the elections were technically sound, some western delegations seemed to have accepted that the results were a foregone conclusion and sent drastically reduced observer missions.
There was broad agreement that the barring of outspoken opposition parties and closure of critical media had cast a shadow over the elections.
“The fact that the four opposition candidates were all drawn from the governing coalition meant there was a lack of critical opposition voices,” said Salim Ahmed Salim, head of the Commonwealth observer group. Last year, Rwanda became only the second country that wasn’t a former British colony to join the Commonwealth.
Salim said that Rwanda “needs to address issues of political participation and greater media freedom” if it was going to meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.
Forced to Vote Kagame?
In a village an hour outside Kigali, one local leader and member of Kagame’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), who refused to give his name and asked that the name of the village be withheld, recounted how he had been told at a meeting with army and government officials ahead of the elections to rig the vote.
Backed up by another local RPF member, who also said he was involved, the local leader said that men with microphones and improvised drums had gone from house to house at 11 p.m. the evening before the elections telling voters to go to the polls. By 1:30 a.m. on Monday – hours before polls were supposed to open – they were already voting. People were forced to put their thumb-print next to Kagame’s picture, he said.
Rwandan election officials denied that any polling stations had opened early. And why Kagame would have had to rig the vote – when even some of his most vocal opponents say he would never have lost – is mildly mystifying.
Instead, in the run-up to the polls some analysts were even speculating that officials might have to massage Kagame’s final tally down, to counter outside concerns about democracy and bolster his feeble opposition.
And if initial results prove correct and Kagame scores less than 93 percent, that might just be right.
In the 2003 elections, he won over 95 percent of the vote.