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Rwandans hit the polls in presidential election; Kagame favored to win

From Lillian Leposo and Josh Kron, For CNN
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Rwandans vote for president
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Monday's vote is the second presidential election since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda
  • The country's GDP doubled during incumbent Paul Kagame's presidency
  • Questionable shootings and deaths have clouded Kagame's tenure
  • Some say Kagame lacks any real opposition

Kigali, Rwanda (CNN) -- Polling stations closed by mid-afternoon Monday in Rwanda, but most people had finished voting by early morning in the country's second presidential election since the 1994 genocide.

While the results aren't expected until Wednesday, incumbent President Paul Kagame is expected to retain power.

Thousands of Rwandans had lined up at polling stations before dawn, up to an hour before the polls opened. More than 5 million people are registered to vote. Based on early turnout, the total number of voters could come close to that number.

At one polling station, near the town of Byumba, the very last of the voters was trickling in from the hilly countryside by 10 a.m.

Video: Minister defends Rwandan record
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  • Rwanda
  • Paul Kagame

"It's finished," said a local farmer named Celestin, who sat in the grass with others. "In the morning there were many."

Loud speakers playing songs in neighborhoods and men on microphones were telling people to vote. Virtually all the voters interviewed by one reporter said they are voting for Kagame.

"Of course, I voted for Kagame," said Heritier Dusibimana, a musician in Kigali. "For me he is a good president. He stopped tribalism, and he stopped the genocide. He wants one people."

Under Kagame -- who was first elected to the presidency in 2000 by the country's Transitional National Assembly and later voted in in democratic elections in 2003 -- the country's gross domestic product has doubled in the past decade. The country is experiencing a construction boom, especially in the capital of Kigali, which is steadily turning it into a modern city. The organization Transparency International recently ranked Rwanda as the least corrupt nation in the region.

Rwanda also boasts of the highest number of female members of parliament in the world, as school attendance increases and child mortality declines.

But even with that impressive record, there are issues that cloud Kagame's presidency.

Earlier this year, there were several unexplained grenade attacks in the country. Army Lt. General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who fell out with Kagame and went into exile in South Africa, was shot in the stomach outside his home.

He survived, with media reports quoting the general's family as saying it was an attempt on his life sanctioned by Rwanda's government. A few days later, Jean Leonard Rugambage, a journalist who claimed to have evidence linking the government to the failed assassination, was shot and killed outside his home.

A few weeks later, a day after he was reported missing, the body of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, deputy president of the opposition Democratic Green Party, was found at a river bank with his head almost severed.

The Rwandan government has vehemently denied any role in the incidents.

"I think that's a situation that's created by bundling all the acts together in the last several months," Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told CNN. "Each one of these cases has its own explanation. Each one is being investigated."

Meanwhile, human rights groups and other critics are already calling Monday's elections a sham, saying Kagame lacks real opposition. There are three opposition parties in the race for the presidency but critics say that they are allied to the ruling party and are just props to show democracy in the country.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch noted the "increasing political repression and a crackdown on free speech" that marked the run-up to the voting.

"Over the last six months, Human Rights Watch has documented a worrying pattern of intimidation, harassment and other abuses -- ranging from killings and arrests to restrictive administrative measures -- against opposition parties, journalists, members of civil society and other critics," the group said in a statement dated August 2.

Victoire Ingabire, a leading opposition personality who came back to the country after years abroad, was barred from registering her United Democratic Forces party and is currently awaiting trial for -- among other charges -- denying the 1994 genocide.

Ahead of the election, the Rwanda media high council de-registered about 30 media outlets, saying they did not meet the standard operating requirements laid out by the commission. The action was a further limiting of the media in Rwanda.

Kagame crisscrossed the country on the campaign trail, meeting with thousands of jubilant citizens. But in a country where freedom of expression is almost non-existent, it is difficult to gauge if the discontent among the critics is also growing among the masses -- a situation that could potentially plunge the country back into chaos.

Kagame's administration has mixed patriotic rhetoric with strict rules in an attempt to recreate society, and recently changed the official language for schools to English, rather than French.

"Liberation is a process," said Tito Rutaremara, the chairman of Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and also the country's ombudsman. "We want to create the nation."

In 1994, militias made up of ethnic Hutus slaughtered ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus nationwide in a 100-day rampage that killed at least 800,000 people. The genocide ended when Tutsi-led militias backing Kagame ousted the Hutu government supporting the massacre.

In the aftermath, Kagame transformed his country, turning it into one of the fastest growing nations in Africa and -- in the view of some -- a model of economic and social development.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is prosecuting several people for crimes against humanity. Last week, the United Nations-created court convicted Dominique Ntawukulilyayo, a former local official from Butare, of genocide and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

Journalist Josh Kron contributed to this report.