As Rwanda Faces Elections: Open Debate In a Closed Political Context?
continued from: Cracks in the mirror as Rwanda prepares for elections
Open debate in a closed political context?
Rwanda is not accustomed to open debate. Over the years the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the party which has been in power since 1994 has built up a control over public life (including the political and judicial organs) on the lines of a one party system despite the existence of a number of other satellite political parties which operate on the fringes of power thanks to their basic loyalty to that power.
The electoral cycle (2001 – 2003) which marked the end of the transition period was organised with no open debate: the only opposition party, ADEP-Mizero, was never registered, and the main independent candidates for the presidential elections were disqualified just before the vote.
President Kagame won his elections with a stalinist 95% of votes following a campaign marred by the disappearances, arrests and intimidation of voters, candidates and observers.
The European Union found irregularities and serious fraud in both the legislative and presidential elections of 2003.
The EU observation mission had similar findings during the legislative elections of September 2008.
Although the wording of the report and in the declarations made at the time of its publication was very diplomatic and tried to avoid confrontation with the Rwandan régime, several of those who took part in this mission reported voting irregularities, in the handling of ballot boxes and in counting votes.
It is now four and a half months until the presidential elections due on 9 August 2010. The ruling party is taking them very seriously and making preparations, putting the party machine in order at local and national level and using all available means including its monopoly of the media.
At the same time other political groupings are preparing themselves too. They are trying to obtain registration as political parties and demanding a fair chance to make themselves known and heard by the electorate.
The principal opposition parties are:
* The Parti Social Imberakuri, (PSI) with Bernard Ntaganda as President, formed by ex-members of the Parti Social Démocrate (PSD) which they left because they were frustrated that the PSD remained tied to the FPR.
* The Democratic Green Party, with a leadership drawn mainly from the Anglophones, is seen by many as an expression of discontent from within the FPR. Its President is Frank Habineza and its Secretary General Charles Kabanda, one of the founders of the FPR in the 80’s in Uganda.
* The FDU-Inkingi whose President, Victoire Ingabire, returned in mid-January to stand as a presidential candidate after an absence of 17 years.
The regime does not consider that these parties enrich Rwanda’s political life.
Parti Social Imberakuri
In 2009, the Parti Social Imberakuri tried to organise four congresses. Three of them were stopped by the regime for procedural reasons but one was held in June.
The PS Imberakuri was recognised as a party in July 2009. Throughout this period the party president, Bernard Ntaganda, made very critical speeches on a number of social, political and judicial issues of concern to the people.
For many Rwandans the fact that the regime was apparently allowing Ntaganda to speak so openly was an indication that there could be positive change and a new political openness.
In the end an offensive against Bernard Ntaganda was launched from within his own party. The Secretary General of the PSI, Noel Hakizimfura, accused his president of « divisionism and genocidal ideology ».
In February Hakizimfura and another party member were expelled from the party for having accepted money from the FPR in order to destabilize the PSI.
On Tuesday evening 16 March 2010, some leading members of the PS-Imberakuri were taken to the headquarters of the FPR where they were ordered to organise a party convention the following day, 17 March, to remove Ntaganda from his post.
The convention was held and the party vice-president, Christine Mukabunani, declared afterwards that Bernard Ntaganda was no longer president of the party.
As a result the institutional framework of the PSI has become very unclear.
In her case, Victoire Ingabire had for a long time been preparing her bid for the presidency of Rwanda from Holland where she had been living for 17 years.
Ingabire arrived on Saturday 16 January in Rwanda: “I am ready to canvass for my candidature for head of state and victory is certain”, she declared soon after stepping on to the tarmac at Kigali international airport.
Her candidature and her direct way of speaking immediately caused tension within the regime which responded with immediate verbal aggression including in the media. Almost immediately she went to place flowers at the Gisozi Memorial.
In part of her speech she said: “The road to reconciliation is still long. This memorial only commemorates the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis, whereas there were also massacres of Hutus “, clearly alluding to the crimes committed in 1994 by members of the former Tutsi rebellion by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), now in power. “The Hutus who killed Tutsis must understand that they have to be punished. It is the same for the Tutsis who have killed Hutus.” This declaration caused fury on the part of genocide victims, the media and the authorities who accused her of propagating “negativism”.
Since 10 February she has regularly been summoned by the police for investigation which has been very time consuming and has hindered her other activities and in which she has been accused of spreading “genocidal ideology, divisionism and contact with the FDLR”.
Up to now no formal charges have been brought but a legal framework has been created which can lead to charges simply by transferring the police file to the courts.
At the same time the FDU-Inkingi was trying to organise its constituent assembly.
This had not been formally forbidden by anyone but Ingabire faced “Kafkaesque” behaviour on the part of the authorities. The commune was willing to authorize the assembly on condition that the police would confirm that they would be present to ensure security. The police would be happy to ensure security provided that the commune gives its written authorisation, and so…
On 13 March, she received a letter from the communal authorities which forbade her to organise political meetings since she was subject to police investigation i.e. the February police interrogation was being used to prevent her exercising political rights today.
She wanted to react by holding a press conference but all the hotels where she had booked a meeting room were threatened and cancelled the booking at the last minute.
Green Democratic Party
The newest opposition party is the Green Democratic Party, launched in August 2009 in Kigali, with the aim of creating a genuine and broad-based opposition with a progressive and ecological vision.
This party has also been stopped several times in its efforts to organise its meetings.
Faced with this situation, the three parties mentioned have set up a common structure (Conseil de Concertation Permanent des Partis de l’Opposition) in the hope that this coordination will enable them to widen the democratic “space” by having a common position on certain subjects and joint lobbying nationally and internationally.
However, these groups, acting alone or together, are very fragile faced with a regime which has no desire for real debate during the elections and which is restricting democratic space through :
* Its monopoly of the media, which continually demonize the opposition parties and their leaders
* Verbal and physical intimidation of opposition parties, their leaders, members and activists
* The creation of a legal framework in which proceedings can be brought very rapidly and where the opposition finds it hard to defend itself (since accusations of spreading genocidal ideology and divisionism are very broad and not clearly defined in law.
This terminology is applied to all those who have a different understanding than the official one of the recent history of Rwanda. This means it can be used to paralyse the leaders of the opposition and to prevent them carrying out their daily duties and exercising their political rights.)
* An administrative policy which aims to prevent opposition groups being registered, setting themselves up, organising meetings or making themselves known to the general public.
In this way two of the parties mentioned above have not yet been registered, while the third has not been given the right to organise activities on the ground.
* Infiltration of opposition parties in order to destabilise them from within.
These strategies do not necessarily imply that the regime wants completely to ban the opposition. It could easily have done that before.
Perhaps it wants first to slow down the opposition, to stop it getting through to the people with a message different from its own and to stop it gaining credibility.
The opposition leaders I have met fear that the government will prevent them getting registration in March.
The process cannot go forward in April, the month when the country is loaded with emotions, with ceremonies and activities commemorating the genocide. This would mean starting again in May.
If the authorities use the same delaying tactics it is not unlikely that opposition political parties would only be recognised several weeks before the elections.
In this case they would take part in the elections without any normal preparation for the campaign or for the vote and without a chance of getting through to the electorate.
Read further: Hawks on the run
EurAc is the European Network of Active NGOs in Central Africa. EurAC is made up of 49 member-organisations from 12 European countries.