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Africa

Rwanda votes in parliamentary polls expected to strengthen Kagame

Many young candidates and voters hope their voices will be heard in this weekend's election. But experts predict little will change in the country's RPF-dominated parliament.

Rwandans in the diaspora were the first to vote on Sunday (September 2) in the polls facilitated by the country's embassies across the world. The poll will be held over three days at 2,500 polling stations across the East African nation. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) expects some 7.1 million Rwandans to elect 53 MPs who will take seats in the lower house.

Rwanda's youth look set to make a strong showing in the country's fourth such poll since the end of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. A large number of the 512 candidates vying for the 80 seats in the parliament in Kigali are under the age of 25, while 200,000 more are among the registered voters.

At 23, Jessica Mutesi of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) will face off against candidates who are three times older than herself. "I decided to stand because I was confident and I wanted to try my luck when I am still young," she told DW. "I want to encourage other young people to not fear trying." 

If elected, Mutesi plans to ensure there will be penalties for men who impregnate teenage girls, forcing them to drop out of school. "I want those girls to continue their education and prepare for their future," she says. 

Political expert Pontian Kabera says the political participation of young Rwandans is a good sign, although he is skeptical of their chances of being elected.

"It shows that the political space in our country has changed and that there is space for the youth to participate in the country's decision-making bodies," Kabera told DW.

Many of the young people who are entering politics in Rwanda have done so via smaller or lesser-known parties.

"One would ask what [are] the chances of these youths coming up from these parties," he says. 

Read more: Fighting for recognition: political opposition in Rwanda

Frank Habineza, president of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, during his interview with DW

Frank Habineza is president of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda

A rubber-stamp legislature

The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), which has been in power since it helped to end the Rwandan genocide in 1994, dominates the bicameral parliament, which was ushered in following a constitutional referendum in 2003. 

Opposition politicians say they consider RPF lawmakers to be hostile. Critics of President Paul Kagame's government argue that Rwanda has no place for a legislature that serves the ruling party, or where opposition lawmakers are afraid to hold it accountable.

"We never saw real debates coming up. We saw unanimous decisions being taken all the time," Franck Habineza, president of the DGPR, told DW. "The campaigns last year were tougher than this year. The local leaders have learned several lessons. Last year they were more hostile than this year," he says.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, pictured in a green beret and camouflage jacket, in July 1994

Paul Kagame was commander of the Tutsi-led rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, which went on to govern the country in the wake of the Hutu-led genocide in 1994

 Little expected to change

Kagame was re-elected with 98 percent of the vote in a presidential election that was marred by irregularities in 2017. The last parliamentary elections were five years ago. Experts predict that the latest election will spell little change on the political front.

"This parliamentary election will be very similar to presidential and parliamentary elections that have gone before in Rwanda, in the sense that it will be completely dominated by the RPF," Phil Clark, an expert on the Great Lakes region from SOAS University of London, told DW. 

"The really key developments leading up to the presidential election and this parliamentary election is that one of the major opposition parties — the Social Democratic Party — has, in essence, stopped campaigning. It said it would just support Kagame."

The vote, which is set to take place on September 2 and 3, marks the first time independent parliamentary candidates will be included in the race. Philippe Mpayimana, a journalist who came in second after Kagame in the 2017 presidential election, is among them. "The citizens want change. If people elect one or two independent candidates to parliament, that is already the beginning of change," he says.

A woman hands out ballot papers to a registered voter at a polling station at the Rwandan High Commission in Nairobi in 2015 during a referendum to amend Rwanda's constitution

An amendment to Rwanda's constitution allows President Paul Kagame to rule until 2034

Youth participation a vital component?

It is significant that young Rwandans are given a voice in this election, says Clark — especially considering that more than 60 percent of the population is under 25. But that is unlikely to change much, he said.

The RPF is aware of the potential strong influence of Rwanda's young population in the political sphere and has adapted its policies accordingly. One of its election promises, for example, is to not place limits on social media, unlike several of Rwanda's neighbors, which drew harsh criticism.

Ultimately, too few Rwandan voters are dissatisfied enough with the current state of affairs to bring about major change, although there are those who would like to see more pluralism on the political scene. But these same people still acknowledge that it was the RPF and its social reforms that worked to rebuild the country and address ethnic divisions in the aftermath of the genocide. 

Benita van Eyssen contributed to this report.

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