Rwanda’s incumbent President Paul Kagame swept to victory with over 98% of the vote in the recent 4 August 2017 election guaranteeing him a third term in office and the possibility of being in office until 2034.
There was little doubt ahead of the election that Kagame was going to win decisively with the result widely considered a foregone conclusion ever since Kagame successfully won a constitutional referendum in 2015 amending presidential term limits. His legitimate popularity among the electorate was another factor in these expectations as Kagame is given significant recognition for his role in ending the 1994 Rwandan genocide and is credited with Rwanda’s remarkable economic growth and good governance ever since. Despite this popularity, the scale of Kagame’s victory is, in itself, suspicious as it is highly unlikely that any individual could win 98.63% of the vote in a legitimate free and fair election.
The 4 August vote did not meet the criteria for a truly free and fair election beginning with structural issues in Rwanda’s system itself. Only one opposition party is allowed to operate within Rwanda, greatly reducing the ability for a plurality of political voices. Further, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) only allowed one independent candidate to contest the election, preventing three others from contesting the ballot. The two candidates opposing Kagame received less than 1% of the vote each.
On top of these structural advantages afforded to Kagame, election observers also raised concerns over other irregularities during the voting process. These include a lack of transparency from the eligibility criteria for candidates, through to vote counting. The campaign also saw allegations of political intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and the abuse of state institutions. Opposition leader, Diane Rwigara, a member of the People Salvation Movement (PSM) – which was prevented from contesting elections due to not being the official opposition – claimed she was prevented from contesting the election as an independent despite submitting twice the required signatures. She also claimed that her family business was targeted by tax authorities and their bank accounts frozen ever since she began opposing Kagame.
Other opposition supporters alleged that had been physically threatened by supporters of Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). The international organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also raised concerns over Kagame’s systematic undermining of independent media and non-governmental organisations over the years, with such organisations now nearly extinct in Rwanda. Under Kagame’s tenure journalists, activists and opposition politicians have described increasing intimidation, arbitrary arrests and even murders being used to suppress any form of dissent or legitimate political challenge.
Given Kagame’s recent victory, and the passive response to the accusations of intimidation and repression by regional and global powers, it is unlikely that any pressure will be put on the Rwandan president to change. This is due to two major reasons; firstly, the political capital Kagame gained following the end of the 1994 genocide has made it difficult to criticise the President; secondly, Kagame’s ability to blend his increasing authoritarianism with technocratic good governance which has reduced corruption and improved Rwanda’s business environment has made him the darling of West. As long as Rwanda continues to maintain a low-corruption and business friendly environment in Africa it is unlikely that any major power will attempt to push Kagame for more democratic reforms. Accordingly, the repression of opposition voices through the use of threats of violence and arbitrary arrests is expected to continue throughout the next presidential term and beyond.