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Rwanda – Expert Briefing

  • Presidential elections will be held on 4 August 2017
  • After a constitutional amendment in 2015, President Paul Kagame is allowed to stand for a third seven-year term in office
  • In the 2010 election Kagame won 93% of the vote
  • Rwanda’s legislature has two chambers: an 80 member Chamber of Deputies, who are elected by proportional representation, and a 26 member Senate, who are a combination of indirectly-elected and appointed
  • Legislative elections are scheduled for 2018
  • The country’s political space is dominated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which has held power since 1994
  • Follow the debate and discussion on Twitter using the hashtags: #RwandaDecides, #RwandaElections2017

On 4 August 2017, Rwanda will hold its third multi-party presidential election since the 1994 genocide. President Paul Kagame, who has led the ruling party – the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – since 2000, is widely expected to win. A national referendum in December 2015, triggered by a petition signed by 3.6 million (out of 6 million) voters, saw 98% of the electorate vote in favour of changing the constitution to allow Kagame to run for a third presidential term. The referendum also reduced presidential term limits from seven to five years, renewable once. This change will not come into effect until 2024 but – because that will represent “year zero” of the new constitution – Kagame could seek a further two terms, potentially taking him to 2034.

Meanwhile, the RPF secured majorities at the 2003, 2008 and 2013 parliamentary elections for its two chambers, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and is likely to do so again in 2018. The RPF rules as the lead party in a five-party coalition, which includes the Rwandan Socialist Party, the Centrist Democratic Party, the Ideal Democratic Party and the Party for Progress and Concord.

Under Rwanda’s first two presidents, Grégoire Kayibanda and Juvénal Habyarimana, both Hutu, elections featured only the ruling party: Kayibanda’s Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation Hutu (Parmehutu) in 1965 and 1969; and Habyarimana’s Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour le Développement (MRND) in 1978, 1983 and 1988.

Three key events in the early 1990s completely transformed Rwanda’s electoral landscape. First, under sustained donor pressure, Habyarimana announced in July 1990 that the government would undertake key political reforms to enable a shift toward multi-party democracy. This led to the promulgation of a new constitution in 1991, which allowed for the creation of opposition political parties and the holding of multi-party elections.

Second, in October 1990, the RPF – a Tutsi-dominated rebel movement created in exile – invaded Rwanda, sparking a civil war between the rebels and Habyarimana’s government. The convergence of multi-partyism and the civil war environment fuelled the creation of extremist Hutu political parties such as the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), which espoused virulently anti-Tutsi rhetoric and formed paramilitary wings to target Tutsi political leaders and civilians.

Third, the drastic increase in ethnic extremism and mobilisation culminated in the genocide of 1994, in which approximately 800,000 Tutsi and their perceived Hutu and Twa sympathisers were massacred in 100 days. After the RPF halted the genocide and captured control of the entire country in July 1994, it formed a transitional government, nominally run by a Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu, from the RPF and a Hutu prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu, from the Mouvement démocratique républicain (MDR). In effect, though, the state apparatus was controlled by Kagame, then vice president, and a small circle of his allies within the RPF. Twagiramungu resigned in 1995 and Bizimungu followed suit in 2000, both claiming that Kagame and other senior RPF officials were monopolising key decision-making. This paved the way for Kagame to assume the presidency in 2000.

The genocide and the RPF’s subsequent consolidation of power were the key background events to the 2003 and 2010 presidential elections and will be once again in 2017. The ethnic extremism of the early 1990s creates anxieties about multi-party elections and their capacity to fuel violence. This has led the RPF-dominated government to pass laws banning the creation of political parties and other forms of political mobilisation along ethnic lines. On this basis, several months before the 2003 elections the government banned the MDR – led by Twagiramungu who returned from exile to challenge Kagame – on the grounds that it was still a Hutu party with an explicit anti-Tutsi agenda.

The RPF has generated considerable support across the country because of its extensive socio-economic development programme, the first Rwandan government to attempt this across the ethnic divide. The party would probably win presidential and parliamentary elections by substantial margins due to this alone, bolstered by the population’s recognition that, historically, no change in presidency has occurred without major bloodshed. Despite these political realities, the RPF has used a wide range of coercive tactics to absolutely guarantee its electoral success. In the lead-up to the 2010 elections, opposition political leaders, journalists, civil society activists and dissident military officers were harassed, jailed, injured or killed. Kagame faces little opposition ahead of the 2017 vote, given that most opposition parties have been systematically undermined since 2003 and the 2015 petition and referendum both served as campaigns for a Kagame presidency.

While Rwanda’s major donors, principally the US, have raised concerns over a Kagame third term – mostly behind closed doors – the RPF has already weathered this diplomatic storm and expects little public criticism leading up to the presidential election. The government has also successfully contrasted its management of the third term issue with the unconstitutional approach adopted by Pierre Nkurunziza’s government in Burundi and the uncertainty around whether Joseph Kabila will change the constitution to run again in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both situations generating widespread violence. While the RPF has carefully orchestrated Kagame’s run for a third term, the greatest threat to Rwanda’s stability and peaceful preparations for the August 2017 election is likely to be these highly charged third term controversies elsewhere in the region.

Dr Phil Clark is Reader in Comparative and International Politics, with reference to Africa, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He tweets at @philclark79