- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda — President Paul Kagame has clinched a decisive victory at the polls this week, but his government’s tough electoral tactics may have complicated his relationship with the Western donors who have bankrolled his country’s recovery from the 1994 genocide.

For the moment, the victory leaves Mr. Kagame, 47, as the towering political figure in Rwanda for the next seven years. With the prospect of another term after this one, Mr. Kagame, who has been the country’s strongman since 1994, could wind up personifying Rwanda for a generation.

“This is a true victory, irreversible, and not a surprise,” said Mr. Kagame, his fist held high during a victory rally early Tuesday.

Monday marked the first multiparty election in Rwanda’s history, a milestone after the three months in 1994 when the majority Hutu ethnic group murdered 800,000 or more minority Tutsis and their sympathizers. As a guerrilla leader, Mr. Kagame fought his way across the country and ended the slaughter, then became the first Tutsi to hold the country’s highest office.

Mr. Kagame’s margin of victory — 95.1 percent to 3.6 percent for his nearest rival, Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu running as an independent — ends any claim that other parties can hold a candle to Mr. Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, international election observers said.

Those observers — from the European Union, other Western governments and human rights organizations — compiled a long list of incidents they believed made the election a cakewalk for Mr. Kagame and a nightmare for Mr. Twagiramungu. However, they also said the voting took place without the widespread violence of other African elections.

Mr. Twagiramungu was vilified in government-run media and faced intense criticism from electoral authorities as he tried to raise the issue of Hutu-Tutsi relations. On the eve of the voting, police arrested 12 of his provincial organizers, saying they were preparing election day violence.

The main charge against Mr. Twagiramungu was that he was practicing “divisionism,” a breach of Rwandan law that means encouraging people to think of themselves in ethnic terms — as Hutus or Tutsis, and not Rwandans. The law rendered impossible his attempts to raise ethnic issues, of which Rwanda still has many.

“To call this an exercise in democracy is not an accurate description by the standards of anyplace in the world,” said Alison Des Forges, a senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. “How can you talk of democracy when people are not free to express themselves?”

Mr. Twagiramungu, a postgenocide prime minister who spent eight years in Belgian exile, could do little but echo this criticism as he promised to challenge the government.

“I denounce and do not support the elections as they have been conducted,” he said. “If by chance I am not arrested, I will continue my fight.”

[The 70-strong EU observer mission praised Monday’s vote as “an important step” for Rwanda’s democratization, Agence France-Presse reported, but said “optimal conditions for free and fair elections were probably not entirely met.”

[“Some irregularities and instances of fraud were noted on voting day,” said Colette Flesch, head of the observer team and a former foreign minister of Luxembourg.

[She said observers were unwelcome “in many cases” when electoral officials were checking the numbers of ballots cast against the numbers on voter rolls — a key safeguard against vote rigging.]

Story Continues →