Rwanda Vote a Formality With Kagame Set to Extend Presidency

Updated on
  • President will face two challengers in Friday’s election
  • Violence, intimidation have marred the campaign, Amnesty says

ncumbent Rwandan President Paul Kagame greets the crowd after addressing supporters at the closing rally of the presidential campaign in Kigali, on August 2, 2017.

Photographer: MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

Paul Kagame has held an iron-clad grip on power in Rwanda since taking office 17 years ago and that’s set to remain after Friday’s presidential elections, with his victory an almost foregone conclusion.

The 59-year-old led a rebel army that ended the East African country’s 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people died, and he’s been credited with turning Rwanda’s economy into one of the continent’s top performers by cutting red tape, improving internet access, roads and electricity supplies. Yet his detractors, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, say civil liberties have fallen by the wayside and the credibility of the vote has been compromised by a violent crackdown on his opponents -- criticisms the authorities reject.

Kagame won 93 percent of the last presidential vote in 2010 and reaffirmed his political dominance in 2015, when more than 98 percent of the 6.28 million people who cast ballots in a referendum voted in favor of a constitutional change that will enable him to stand for a third seven-year term. As a result of the amendment, he’s allowed to run for two further terms of five years each, potentially retaining his post until 2034.

“Kagame will remain central in policy making in Rwanda for the foreseeable future, bar any personal health issues or other unexpected events,” said Mark Bohlund, Africa economist with Bloomberg Intelligence in London. “Investors are likely to view the high probability of policy continuity and Kagame’s developmental agenda as more important than grievances of transgressions of freedom of speech and other human rights.”

Economic Expansion

The landlocked nation’s economy -- which gets donations from countries including the U.S. and U.K. -- has expanded an average of more than 7 percent a year since Kagame took office in 2000, and is expected to grow 6.1 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Its biggest industries and sources of foreign exchange are tea, coffee, tourism and mining. About a third of the population of 12 million are subsistence farmers.

In its election manifesto, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front pledged to create jobs, partner with private companies to encourage new industry, build about 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles) of roads and increase mineral exploration.

Kagame will face two challengers in the presidential race: Frank Habineza, the leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, who wasn’t allowed to run in the 2010 vote and fled into European exile after his deputy was killed; and Mpayimana Philippe, a former journalist with no political experience who’s standing as an independent. Three other hopefuls were barred from competing after the National Electoral Commission decreed they hadn’t complied with a requirement to collect 600 signatures supporting their candidacy.

Click here to read an interview with an opposition presidential candidate

Amnesty last month urged the government to prevent harassment of opposition candidates and their supporters in the vote and also start reforms to open up political space before the 2024 elections to allow genuine debate.

About 6.8 million people have registered to cast ballots. Polls open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 3 p.m., with the electoral commission expecting to announce the winner on Friday evening.

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