Election campaigning began in earnest on 14 July 2017 across Rwanda ahead of the country’s 4 August 2017 presidential election which will see incumbent president, Paul Kagame, face off against Frank Habineza who heads the opposition Democratic Green Party (DGP), and independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana.
However, the campaign is occurring under a cloud following accusations of authoritarianism and intimidation following the National Electoral Commission (NEC) revealing that only three candidates, including President Paul Kagame, would be permitted to contest the ballot. The NEC made this revelation during the 7 July 2017 announcement of the final candidate list which included President Kagame, leader of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Habineza, and Mpayimana. Three other candidates, however, were barred from contesting the election by the NEC.
The three candidates prevented from running are Diane Shima Rwigara, Gilbert Mwenedata, and Fred Sekikubo Barafinda; all three were planning to run as independents as the DGP is the only opposition party permitted to operate in Rwanda. Rwigara, in particular, has accused the NEC of being partisan and acting on behalf of Kagame and the RPF and stymieing opposition voices. The NEC has accused Rwigara of having fraudulently used the names of deceased citizens on her nomination forms and that she failed to receive the necessary number of signatures Rwigara has vehemently denied these allegations and in turn has accused the government of inciting intimidation of opposition supporters across Rwanda and that local leaders threatened her supporters who were collecting signatures for her application.
Human rights organisation, Amnesty International has also raised concerns over the treatment of opposition supporters and independent journalists in Rwanda under President Kagame. According to the group, Kagame’s 17 years in power has been marked by intimidation, disappearances and even the killing of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition supporters. Amnesty and other rights groups have criticised Kagame and the RPF for increasing authoritarian tendencies.
Kagame is widely expected to decisively win the 4 August election due both to suspected underhanded tactics and his legitimate popularity across Rwanda. As the leader of the RPF widely credited with having a major role in ending the 1994 genocide during which an estimated 1 million people were killed. Following the end of the genocide, Kagame served as Rwanda’s Vice President as well as the Minister of Defence between 1994 and 2000 during which he was considered to be the de facto leader of the country.
Kagame was initially supposed to step down from the presidency this year due to a constitutional two-term limit, which in 2000 he promised to follow. However, in 2015 Rwanda held a constitutional referendum extending term limits, potentially allowing Kagame to rule until 2034. According to the official NEC results, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly for the motion, registering 98.3% of the vote in favour of the constitutional changes. Critics of the referendum claim that there were widespread irregularities and that the vote in favour of motion was improbably high.
The upcoming campaign period is expected to be largely free of major civil unrest or other public violence. This is due to the RPF popularity and the non-combative nature of the DGP, which critics have termed a ‘tame opposition’. However, intimidation and targeted violence against journalists, activists, and other figures opposed to Kagame’s government is possible. In addition, a heightened security presence is likely throughout Rwanda during the campaign period and on Election Day.
Kagame’s anticipated victory will likely set the tone for Rwanda’s future and increase the likelihood of the country becoming an even more authoritarian state. Kagame would be expected to win the vote even in a free and fair election; however, if the ballot returns him another improbable margin of victory this could indicate that the President has even less regard for the democratic process than initially thought and raises the possibility of him holding on to power even passed 2034.