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Rwanda: Are the upcoming elections just for show?

June 20, 2024

Next month, Rwandans will choose between three presidential candidates, including current President Paul Kagame. But are the elections just a sham?

Rwanda's presidential candidates, Philippe Mpayimana, Paul Kagame, and Frank Habineza
Rwandans will choose between 3 presidential candidates: Philippe Mpayimana, Paul Kagame and Frank Habineza Image: AFP

For Kigali resident Charles Ndushabandi, Rwanda's upcoming general elections hold little meaning.

"I don't think there is much that will change. It is just a ritual that happens after a few years. It's all pre-determined," he told DW.

Rwandans will head to the polls on 15 July for presidential and parliamentary elections. President Paul Kagame has governed Rwanda with a firm grip for decades, securing presidential victories in 2003, 2010, and 2017. Each time, he received over 90% of the vote.

Ndushabandi believes the elections are held simply to "please the donors and show that there is some semblance of democracy."

When asked whether he expects a fair election, Ndushabandi said he thinks the meaning of "fair" is subjective.

"What is being fair? We have seen candidates denied the chance to stand. We have seen candidates who are trying to be independent being jailed," he said.

People blowing vuvuzela horns ourside of a bus during the 2017 elections.
Supporters of the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) blow their vuvuzela horns as they arrive at a campaign rally in Kigali in 2017Image: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Jean Pierre Muganga, a university graduate who will be voting for the first time, also does not expect any surprising results.

"I am 100% sure that President Kagame will win again," the young graduate said. His sentiment is shared by most Rwandans.

"The expectation is that  Rwandan Patriotic Front (Paul Kagame's party) will win because as it has been the case," he said.

The young voter believes the ruling party has proven itself to be successful in its political agenda.

"When you ask citizens in the countryside, they consider it a political party that helped them develop." For this reason, he says, he believes the party will win. 

President for life?

A controversial constitutional amendment in 2015 enabled President Kagame to bypass the limit of two consecutive seven-year terms and allowed him to run for two additional five-year terms.

Since 2015, a general trend of bypassing term limits has been observed in many different African nations. In practical terms, Kagame is in a position to remain president for life.

The 66-year-old has ruled Rwanda since 1994, coming to power in the wake of the genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

People on motorbikes ride past a sign of Paul Kagame.
Paul Kagame has been Rwanda's president for 23 yearsImage: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Kagame has been praised for steering the country toward economic transformation after the genocide, but he frequently faces criticism for human rights abuses and a lack of tolerance towards political opposition.

Several human rights groups have accused Kagame of creating a climate of fear that stifles dissent and freedom of expression.

In the 2024 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Rwanda ranks 144 out of 180 countries. According to the report, decades of oppression have significantly weakened the country's media landscape.

Kagame is also known to be a fierce critic of Western authorities, though he has also been willing to work with them, as seen in his support for the United Kingdom's plan to deport asylum-seekers to his country.

The other two candidates

Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party and independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana are the only two candidates running against Kagame.

A portrait of Frank Habineza wearing a suit
Chairman of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, Frank Habineza, is running for presidentImage: AFP/Getty Images

Habineza ran during the last presidential race and received less than 2% of the votes. Undeterred by the setback, the Green Party continued its political efforts and participated in the 2018 parliamentary elections, securing two seats.

Meanwhile, Philippe Mpayimana is running for president for the second time. He first ran in 2017, getting 0.72% of the total votes.

Mpayimana is currently the senior expert in charge of community engagement at the Ministry of National Unity and Civic Engagement, a position he has held since November 2021, according to The New Times, an English-language newspaper in Rwanda. He has worked for various publications as a journalist since 1990.

Rwandan presidential candidate Philippe Mpayimana waves.
Philippe Mpayimana has worked in media for many years and is also running for president Image: Eric Murinzi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Rwandans will also choose between over 500 aspiring members of parliament in the July 15 elections.

'Denied my right to campaign'

Nine candidates submitted their candidacy to the National Electoral Commission. Diane Rwigara, leader of the People Salvation Movement, told DW she was very disappointed to learn she was barred from this year's elections.

"I did my best to fulfill all the requirements. I gave the Electoral Commission all the documents they requested. But, like in 2017, I see myself denied my right to campaign," she said.

Diane Rwigara smiles at the camera.
Diane Rwigara is the daughter of industrialist Assinapol Rwigara, a former major donor to Kagame's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front partyImage: Cyril Ndegeya/AFP/Getty Images

Rwigara was also barred from taking part in the 2017 race for allegedly forging the signatures of supporters for her application. She was arrested and charged with forgery and inciting insurrection based on comments criticizing the government and Kagame.

She is the daughter of industrialist Assinapol Rwigara, an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Before his fallout with its leaders, he was a major donor to Kagame's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party.

Rwigara said the current political climate in Rwanda is tense: "There is much fear. People do not dare to express themselves out of fear of reprisals."

Rwigara would like to see wider political representation. more political representation in the country's politics.

"I do understand that with our past, with the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, we have to be careful about how we express ourselves because of what our country has gone through. That's a horrible tragedy. That being said, I think that there should be room for voices other than those from the ruling party," she said.

For now, the 42-year-old continues to advocate for more political and economic freedom.

Colonial Roots of the Genocide in Rwanda

Contribution by Alex Ngarambe.