Rwandans go to the polls to give a mandate to the man who will lead the country for the next seven years.
Barring an extremely unlikely upset, President Paul Kagame is expected to romp home. This is the third election since the promulgation of a new Constitution in 2003 that set the terms of engagement for contestants.
Devoid of the emotive heat that is typical of elections elsewhere in the region, the Rwandan election will appear strange to those to whom violence, big money and do-or-die tactics have been normalised.
To Rwanda’s credit, this is an exercise into which the country is going without any sense of apprehension either on the part of citizens or Rwanda’s neighbours.
Although there were initial concerns about the short 19-day campaign period, as the race enters the final lap, all candidates appear to have managed to make an appearance in each of the 30 districts. Up to now, it has been a peaceful exercise with only a couple of incidents reported, in which the authorities promptly acted to apprehend the spoilers.
It is also noteworthy that despite the massive defection of the established opposition to form an alliance with the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front, new opposition candidates emerged to represent an alternative viewpoint. It does not really matter that they have a small following, what is important is that they have been able to get a platform to sell their views to the public.
Even if it were the only reason, the opposition candidates deserve a pat on the back for running the full course of the campaign.
Rwanda should also be commended for running the lowest-cost election per capita in which election spending has not resulted in macroeconomic instability.
Placed into historical context, therefore, this election shows consolidation of some aspects of democracy. It also demonstrates the role of leaders in shaping the character of an election. As a few incidents in the south and west of the country demonstrated, left on their own, there are still some actors at the lower echelons of society that are not completely sold on the principles of fair competition for power.
One hopes that Rwanda’s democratic evolution is still work in progress and that the efforts to ease competition for leadership will continue. One aspect that may need review is the timeframe for independent candidates to gather signatures in support of their bid. For now, the window is a bit too narrow and could well have locked more potential contenders out of the race.
It is a given that President Kagame will win the race, and in that case continuity is not likely to be an issue. Economic growth must be maintained and the benefits of this growth need to continue trickling down to the masses. Kagame’s main challenge will be to oversee his own transition. This is important because it addresses the most important aspect of uncertainty about Rwanda.
Though this may sound like an irritant, Rwanda must also proactively respond to the constant accusations about its human-rights record. Shutting the noise out is not the best option; Rwanda should open up internally and allow homegrown non-state rights watchdogs to flourish.