Drawing lessons from opposition candidates’ presidential campaigns

Sunday August 6 2017

From left, Rwandan presidential aspirants Frank

From left, Rwandan presidential aspirants Frank Habineza (left), Philippe Mpayimana. PHOTOS | FILE | NMG 

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Rwandan President Paul Kagame has won a third term in office, garnering 98 per cent of votes, according to partial results released by the electoral commission Saturday.

And by knowing the winner, I mean, winning by what margin, since there was no doubt the incumbent would trounce his competitors.
And the reasons for predicting a win for President Paul Kagame related to his stature and name recognition; his achievements; the strength of his RPF party; the history of presidential elections in the country and weakness of his opponents.
The intention of this article, therefore, is to share what I found noteworthy throughout the electoral process and lessons offered by this third presidential vote.
Broadly, there are five noteworthy lessons.
First, while Kagame’s critics claim the existence of a “climate of fear” in the country, in practice, there was no violence or threat thereof. This means that, indeed, it’s possible to organise presidential elections without anyone losing a limb or life — a good lesson worth relearning.

Secondly, I closely followed the happenings and even talked to several people and they all confirmed there was no use of money to buy votes nor allegations of vote rigging.

This too is a positive development considering that in many African countries these are critical ingredients that sometimes determine the outcome of an election.
Thirdly, RPF colours and the image of its candidate were almost everywhere. On roadside trees and roundabouts; on social media, mostly on Twitter but also on Facebook and WhatsApp; friends mobilised their relatives, friends, neighbours etc to support and attend campaigns.

Surprisingly, the use of social media by the incumbent’s opponents was minimal and was largely limited to what the candidates themselves sent or what one or two supporters posted.

Strategically then, we could say that while the incumbent effectively used both traditional and modern communication tools for his campaigns, his opponents mainly relied on traditional media.

The lesson here is that, to successfully challenge the incumbent, a candidate will need more than confidence and interest in the seat, or confirmation from the electoral commission.
To be a formidable opponent, a candidate will need more than the support of family and friends. A plausible campaign strategy that includes an army of social media users as supporters and a ground game that mobilises the vote hunt to be door-to-door will be a must.

Fourth, my heart danced with joy when I heard that several local officials who interfered with the campaigns of opponents of the incumbent had not only been denounced by their superiors but apprehended by the police for acting contrary to the law.

The arrest was noble but prosecutors also need to make sure the officials are charged. This is because only through the enforcement of the rule of law can a democratic culture be nurtured.

Finally, this election reconfirmed that there is no love lost between the country’s leadership and human-rights organisations or foreign media.

For as thousands of Rwandans flocked to campaign rallies, organisations like Human Rights Watch, The Economist and The Washington Post were claiming that there was no democracy in the country but rather a “climate of fear.”

In response, Rwandans took to social media to dismiss these allegations and what they consider to be an attack on their leaders and sovereignty.

Clearly, there is a mismatch between how foreign media and human rights groups perceive Rwanda and how citizens do. To understand the source of the two narratives, one needs to consider not only how the country is governed, but also its history.

That said, there is no doubt that, clearly, this was a contest between unequal candidates not only in terms of organisation and ideas but also in terms of resources and strategy.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com