- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda — Voters turned out massively yesterday in Rwanda’s first presidential election since the 1994 genocide, with the incumbent Paul Kagame expected to consolidate his hold on power in the small central-African nation.

Electoral officials said most voters had cast their ballots by midday, six hours after polling stations opened. The vote progressed peacefully with only isolated incidents reported.

Mr. Kagame, 46, who heads the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) — the former Tutsi rebel movement that fought to end the genocide — is widely expected to win the vote after a campaign marred by charges of government-sponsored intimidation of opposition supporters.

He campaigned on a theme of national unity nearly a decade after up to a million minority Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers were slaughtered in 100 days of bloodletting orchestrated by the Hutu government.

“It’s a big democratic step taken by our country,” he said yesterday. “I am sure Rwandans like myself are happy that we’ve been able to make this huge stride.”

A Rwandan government official announced that an “electoral evening,” to be attended by Mr. Kagame, was planned in the capital’s largest stadium. The event was not included in an official program distributed to journalists.

Mr. Kagame, who held his final campaign rally in the 25,000-seat stadium on Saturday, is seen as a force for reconciliation, but his critics say the former guerrilla leader has used a fear of ethnic bloodletting to suppress dissent.

His main challenger, Faustin Twagiramungu, 58, a moderate Hutu who returned from exile in Belgium to run in the election, has been accused of “divisionism” by government media outlets as well as the electoral commission, a serious accusation in the traumatized country.

Mr. Twagiramungu said he was prepared to respect the outcome of the vote.

“If they choose someone else, I will applaud, as long as everything has gone transparently,” he said.

Official partial results from the landmark election were expected to be announced after 11 p.m. local time (5 p.m. EDT)

The head of the National Electoral Commission, Chrysologue Karangwa, declared the elections a success, saying at a press conference that only “two or three” isolated minor incidents were reported.

Mr. Twagiramungu’s camp had repeatedly complained of threats and intimidation against his supporters during the campaign.

His party, the Republican Democratic Movement, was banned, forcing him to run as an independent. On Saturday, 12 members of his electoral team were arrested, accused by police of plotting acts of violence across the country during voting. Several supporters have disappeared.

The head of the European Union’s electoral-observation mission here, Colette Flesch, said Friday that a Twagiramungu supporter was killed a week earlier in northern Rwanda, and that her group received “reports about threats and harassments.”

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