1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is Rwanda's presidential election really democratic?

Isaac Mugab
Isaac Mugabi
July 12, 2017

In just three weeks time, Rwandans will go to the polls to elect a new leader. The candidates will soon start campaigning but the result is a foregone conclusion, writes DW's Isaac Mugabi.

Rwandan president Paul Kagame
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Ehrenzeller

On August 4, Rwandans will head to the polls for the third election of its kind in more than 20 years to elect a new president and legislators. It will be yet another opportunity for the country to prove to the rest of the world that it has achieved political maturity. The race between incumbent President Paul Kagame of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and opposition leader of the Rwanda Green Party, Frank Habineza, is expected to be a walkover. The third contender, little-known former journalist Philippe Mpayimana, is highly unlikely to get much support. Kagame, who is seeking reelection for a third term, is widely tipped to win with a landslide victory after the constitution was amended to allow him to run again until at least 2034. 

As in previous elections in 2003 and 2010, Kagame's opponents don't stand a chance of even getting close to winning as long as he is in the running. Therefore, the battle lines that have been drawn are not between Kagame and the two underdogs in the race, but rather between Kagame and his critics, many of whom are to be found among opposition groups living in exile who have described the upcoming poll as a one-man show and have also vowed to fight his "authoritarian leadership style." Kagame is now called on to prove to his critics that he is still a force to be reckoned with and that he can win an election in a free and fair manner.

For many Rwandans, Kagame is a guarantor of peace and stability, having led Rwanda through a turbulent period in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide that ravaged the country and left at least a million civilians dead. The battle lines have also been drawn between Kagame and rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that have severally accused him of gross human rights violations and silencing his critics.

Their most recent example is the rejection of the only female candidate Diane Shima Rwigara, a 35-year-old accountant, in a move that has set tongues wagging with many critics pointing a finger at the country's electoral commission. They accuse the commission of being biased and full of political cadres of the ruling RPF party. In its defense the commission alleges that Rwigara only submitted 572 valid signatures, short of the required 600. It also said many of the signatures she provided in support of her candidacy were forged, and some names belonged to people who had long died, accusations which Rwigara denies.

Isaac Mugabi
Isaac Mugabi is an editor with DW's English for Africa serviceImage: DW/Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Diane Rwigara's father was a prominent businessman who died in 2015 in a car accident that the family maintains was politically motivated. She has spoken out against what she describes as repression by the government and other social injustices. Such statements have not gone down well with the government and a section of Rwandans who think that, perhaps, it's out of frustration that she chooses to criticize Kagame's government at the slightest opportunity. Although Rwigara may not be the first female to vie for the presidency after Alvera Mukabaramba who ran against Kagame in the previous two elections, from the onset it was clear to many political observers within and outside Rwanda that her presidential bid would hit a snag at some stage. But why would a country that boasts more women in parliament than anywhere else in the world not support a woman to become president?

Firstly, Diane Rwigara is widely seen as wanting to settle political scores with the current regime after Kigali city authorities ordered her family hotel to be razed to the ground for not complying with certain requirements in accordance with the city's master plan. Secondly, the demise of her father seems to have affected her more than any of her other siblings who have chosen to keep a low profile. She has spoken to different media outlets on numerous occasions about the plight of her family and how it was going through hard times at the hands of the current regime. In a country where one has to be  extremely bold to criticize the government's actions, Rwigara's shot at the presidency can only be described as an adventure in the woods without a compass.

Why Kagame will win

Kagame is widely credited with restoring peace and steering the country to rapid economic growth in recent years. His intolerance for corruption has also won him admirers. He has improved the country's infrastructure over the years and has turned the country into a regional business hub. Many East Africans find Rwanda an ideal place to do business compared to their home countries because of the low level of bureaucracy. However, activists say all that has come at the expense of civil liberties and media freedoms. 

Kagame not only enjoys enormous support within the country, but also with the Rwanda diaspora scattered around the world. Unlike many other Africans living in the diaspora, especially in Europe and North America, who can't vote, Rwandans living abroad are able to participate in elections. This alone will give the incumbent president an edge over the other candidates. In addition, Kagame has strategically positioned himself in the region as a leader who puts the interests of Rwandans first. These include ensuring that most Rwandans have health care insurance unlike in other parts of Africa. In a country like Rwanda that has few natural resources, compared to its neighbors like DRC, this is no mean achievement. Many compare his leadership style to that of so-called benevolent dictators around the world like former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whom Kagame admired for transforming his country from a third world to a first world nation within a single generation.

Kagame's leadership style has won him the trust of influential personalities like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President Bill Clinton. The former serves on his presidential advisory council, while the latter's foundation focuses on health issues in Rwanda. Also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports Kagame's health policies. But despite having such personalities as friends, Kagame is known not to mince words when responding to diplomats or world leaders who criticize him.

The most recent incident was when Michael Ryan, the European Union representative in Rwanda, tweeted a picture of himself with Rwigara and demanded quick clarification on why many of the signatures supporting her candidacy were rejected. Kagame immediately rebuked Ryan on national television for meddling in matters that concern Rwandans. This kind of approach to criticism from outsiders has won him admirers and critics in equal measure. And this will undoubtedly continue while he stays in office for the next seven years. Diane Rwigara and the other contestants will have to wait for another opportunity some time in the future when Kagame is not running for the presidency.

Have something to say? You can share your comment below. The thread will remain open for 24 hours after publication.