On 4 August 2017, Rwandans head to the polls to elect a president. They will choose between Frank Habineza, Philippe Mpayimana and the incumbent Paul Kagame.
Most observers expect a landslide victory for Kagame. But there’s controversy around the election because of a 2015 constitutional amendment that allowed him to seek a third seven-year term followed by two further five-year terms.
The Rwandan election is being watched closely by observers concerned about an erosion of democracy in the country. While some of these concerns are valid, they must be qualified against Rwanda’s historical and developmental realities.
At best, Rwanda can be characterised as an illiberal democracy, but this should not detract from the current regime’s successes. Nor is it a suggestion that Kagame shouldn’t lead. Under his tenure the country has enjoyed year-on-year socio-economic progress. In most situations, this would secure electoral victory.
The Kagame enigma
Kagame is the presidential candidate for the country’s ruling political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He commanded the rebel force that ended the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. He then became vice president and, in 2000, president in the transitional government.
In 2003, he was elected president and then reelected in 2010. While he is generally seen as popular in the country, opinions around Kagame are polarised.
Some observers highlight the country’s robust economic growth record, poverty reduction, improvements in health access and outcomes, control of corruption, and relative stability achieved under Kagame’s leadership.
Frank Habineza is leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, founded in 2009 but prevented from registering until 2013. In 2010, Habineza fled into exile following the murder of the party deputy, André Kagwa Rwisereka, but returned in 2012.
Habineza offers alternatives to programmes started by the RPF which he claims have become a burden on Rwandans. These include the crop and land intensification programmes. He has indicated that he would revisit land ownership and policies that enable the reclaiming of private property for public use.
Philippe Mpayimana is an independent candidate with no previous political track record. A former journalist and writer, he has authored several books on Rwanda’s social and political dynamics. Mpayimana lived in exile from 1994 until early 2017.
Mpayimana says that his main project will be to transform the country into a state with full democratic rights. Among other things he has said he will strengthen democratic institutions and restore the country’s culture and traditions.
Becoming a candidate
The legal criteria for becoming a presidential candidate are set out in the country’s electoral code and monitored by the National Electoral Commission. The commission stipulates that independent presidential aspirants must present 600 signatures, with at least 12 from each of the 30 districts of the country before they can be registered.
For this election, three potential candidates - Diane Rwigara, Fred Barafinda and Gilbert Mwenedata - did not meet this requirement.
Registered political parties can also field presidential candidates. But political parties are required to meet strict criteria and are locked out if they recognise ethnic divisions, deny the genocide, or have links with genocidaire militant groups.
As a result, several political parties have not been registered.
Of Rwanda’s 11 registered political parties, nine have opted to back Kagame. Of the remaining two, the Democratic Green Party fielded Habineza as candidate while the Social Party Imberakuri chose neither to field a candidate nor to back any other aspirant.
An illiberal democracy
For a country to be considered a democracy its politics must be competitive, participatory, and fair. Simply holding elections is not enough.
While elections in Rwanda are fair, with a low likelihood of pre-electoral violence or flagrant electoral malpractice, the Rwandan political system is neither participatory nor competitive.
Kagame is the certain victor because the relevant institutions are stacked in his favour. For one, the other candidates lack sufficient exposure and funding to conduct a successful campaign. They were only confirmed as candidates and thus allowed to begin fund raising on July 7th.
Meanwhile, the RPF is extremely well-resourced thanks to its private business arm Crystal Ventures Ltd, which is one of Rwanda’s largest investment companies. In effect, Kagame is the only candidate with the funds to campaign nationwide.
A second issue is access to information. The local media self-censors, choosing not to write anything critical of Kagame and the RPF. The majority of citizens only have access to domestic news outlets. Kagame will therefore appear as the best candidate.
What is sometimes interpreted by Western observers as a lack of political space is typically a failure to understand how politics is practised in Rwanda.
Rwanda remains an illiberal democracy in large part because of its prevailing political settlement. With the genocide against the Tutsi still in recent memory, Kagame and the RPF have committed to power-sharing only with parties that are firmly aligned against ethnic sectarianism.
As such, the government rules through dialogue and consensus. Decisions are made only once there is broad agreement among the political parties. Formal mechanisms of dialogue and consensus also permeate through society, even down to the village level. This has been the foundation on which Rwanda has built its post-genocide society.
This political settlement is grounded in the fear that a more adversarial style of policymaking and debate could give rise to extremism and undermine stability. And while there are still significant political and policy debates in Rwanda, these are framed in non-adversarial terms. Those who present themselves as divisive and adversarial, as did barred candidate Diane Rwigara, are excluded from politics.
It is worth pointing out that another East African country is in the middle of election fever. In Kenya, the election cycle reinforces deep ethnic divides, where political parties act as campaign vehicles for ethnic barons. This reminds us that while politics in Rwanda does not fulfil Western democratic standards, competitive elections are no panacea.