Two major political parties in Rwanda are not offering presidential contenders to challenge President Kagame in the August 4 polls.
Many were taken by surprise when, in separate congresses during the June 3-4 weekend, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Liberal Party (PL) both endorsed President Kagame, who is yet to be formally selected as the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s flagbearer.
The development raised questions as to the identity and political status of the two parties and how this would affect the constitutionally-mandated power sharing arrangement in which the victor appoints only half the Cabinet.
Questions were also raised about the motivation behind the parties’ moves and whether this would translate into gains for the smaller political parties that hitherto had no representation in parliament.
“PL and PSD have taken the idea of ‘consensual politics’ too far and simply echoed the government voice,” observed Dr Phil Clark, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
According to Dr Clark, the democratic terrain in Rwanda “is all the poorer” for this approach by the PL and PSD.
“It is no longer clear how they differentiate themselves from the RPF in terms of putting forward opposition presidential candidates, contesting current government policies or advancing new policies of their own,” he adds.
PSD is the second most significant party in Rwanda followed by PL if measured by Members of Parliament. They were the only opposition parties with a parliamentary representation.
In 2010, Prosper Higiro and Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo contested against President Kagame on the tickets of PL and PSD respectively and, according to observers, this led to a vibrant policy discussions and vigorous campaigning.
Those who see the PL and PSD’s decisions as a deficit to multiparty democracy in Rwanda cite the two parties’ historical background.
Both were created just after the 1991 constitutional review that reintroduced multiparty politics in the country, and played a great role in shaking up President Juvenal Habyarimana’s single party, Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement.
But Dr Venuste Karambizi, a lecturer and political analyst maintains that this does not affect multiparty democracy at all. “This highlights the maturity of Rwandan politicians who see what is good for the country without focusing on their individual interests. Politics is about calculation and that is what the two did,” he said.
Former internal security minister, Sheikh Musa Fazil Harelimana, who also chairs the Ideal Democratic Party in coalition with RPF, shares the same view.
In interviews with local media, PL and PSD have defended their stand, arguing that come 2018 they will contest for parliamentary seats against the RPF.
Political analysts say that the endorsements expose the soft underbelly of Rwandan opposition leaders who tend to focus on direct benefits, like political seats, instead of consolidating their base and targeting future gains.
While the RPF is always busy widening its base by recruiting new members, other parties, including the two that have endorsed Kagame, seem to not really focus on recruiting new members and their congresses are dominated by old affiliates.
This, analysts say, raises fears of continued dwindling of political parties’ to the benefit of RPF, whose growing shadow may in the future impact on the principle of power sharing as enshrined in the Rwandan Constitution.
The Constitution provides that the Speaker of Parliament cannot come from the same political party as the president of the republic. According to analysts, this constitutes an assurance for parties like PL and PSD that they will either way get some key seats without working too hard, because “RPF would not want to look bad in the eyes of the international community as a single party.”
The same principle guides the appointment of the Cabinet. The Constitution provides that Cabinet members are selected from political organisations on the basis of seats they hold in the Chamber of Deputies.
The same provision has a caveat that a political organisation holding the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies cannot have more than 50 per cent of the Cabinet.