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How democratic are Rwandan elections?

Rwandans are going to the polls on Monday (16.09.2013) to vote for a new parliament. But the opposition leaders are saying the elections are simply a farce.

Faustin Twagiramungu is furious. The results of the parliamentary elections on Monday (16.09.2013) are already decided, says the former Rwandan prime minister, who at the moment lives in exile. “The ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (FPR) will keep the majority it has in parliament. And the smaller parties, which have turned into offshoots of the FPR will get the rest.”

Twagiramungu's bitterness at Rwandan politics, can be explained through his own political biography. As prime minister, Twagiramungu fell out with Paul Kagame, who at the time served as vice president. Frustrated with the work of the government, he left the country and went to exile in Belgium.

During the country's first free elections in 2003, Twagiramungu contested against Kagame but only managed to win over 3.56 percent of the votes. This year, Twagiramugu's shot at an independent seat in parliament, was shuttered once again, as Rwandan authorities refused to let him enter the country.

No strong opposition?

Charles Munyaneza denies the claims of a predetermined election. He heads Rwand's electoral commission. In an answer to Twagiramungu claims, he told DW “They are lying. Those who work here in Rwanda know the reality.” Most Rwandans, he explains, "are looking forward to the election. If that was the case, we wouldn't have 95 percent of Rwandans waiting to vote. They wouldn't be wasting their time to go and vote.”

Rwandan voters wait in lines to cast their votes. (Photo:EPA/CHARLES SHOEMAKER)

Over 90 percent of Rwandans are expected to vote on Monday

Eleven parties are currently running for the 80 seats in parliament, also known as the “Chamber of Deputies”. Yet not all parties were able to register on time. The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda was established five years ago. But they only managed to officially register their party in August this year, too late for the upcoming election. Party leader Frank Habineza put the blame on the Rwandan government. He said, after a party event was disrupted by outsiders, the police halted further party gatherings for security reasons.

Habineza also remembers the unresolved killing of his deputy, André Rwisereka in 2010. The only suspect was released a few days after the murder, due to lack of evidence. “We have had several threats, serious threats,” Habineza said and added that he fears for his own safety in Rwanda. His party will now have to tread carefully and as Habineza said it will have to “stick to the rules.”

The darling of the West?

Back in Belgium, Faustin Twagiramungu is also not happy with the way the international community is unconditionally supporting Paul Kagame's government. The former prime minister believes that the West is supporting Rwanda because it feels guilty over it's failure to halt the 1994 genocide. By then, a military intervention, headed by Paul Kagame managed to stop the three-months long conflict, in which around 800,000 Rwandans were killed.

Alexander Stroh, a German political scientist from the Hamburg Institute of African Affairs agrees that guilt played a huge role in Rwanda's foreign relations. Today, however, he said that other factors play a role. “Rwanda has made great progress in terms of development. Due to this, western countries like working with Rwanda, as they can actually implement their aid programs. You should not underestimate this, as it is an important aspect.”

Men in military uniforms and guns (Photo: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Congolese M23 rebels are allegedly supported by Kagame's government.

Western governments however, not only demand economic progress. They also demand an improved human rights record. In the World Bank's “Ease of doing business” index, Rwanda was ranked the third best sub-Saharan country in 2013. On a human rights level, however, both the United Nations and the United States have criticised Rwanda for allegedly supporting the Congolese M23 rebel group. As a result, several aid donors, amongst them Germany, suspended their aid to Rwanda. Today the bulk of the aid flow has however resumed.

Whether the elections will bring us a step closer to true democracy, is still to be seen, Stroh said. Even Rwanda's election organizer, Charles Munyaneza notes that Rwanda's democratic system is after all a democracy in the making. This, he said, also explained why political groups like the Green Party are still comparably weak.

For the time being, the Green Party itself hopes to engage itself in oppositional activities outside the parliament. The ultimate goal is to prepare it for the country's next elections in five years.