PO­LIT­I­CAL COM­PE­TI­TION IS ALIVE IN RWANDA

The East African - - NEWS - FRED­ER­ICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI Fred­er­ick Golooba-mutebi is a Kam­pala- and Ki­gali-based re­searcher pol­i­tics and pub­lic af­fairs. E-mail: fg­mutebi@ya­hoo.com

Con­trary to the all-toocom­mon claim that Rwanda is a one-party state, there are ac­tu­ally 11 po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the coun­try. Here, more than else­where in East Africa, elec­tion cam­paigns are a mat­ter of con­stantly shift­ing al­liances.

In Au­gust, po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Rwanda got busy trav­el­ling up and down the coun­try, can­vass­ing for votes for the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that took place at the be­gin­ning of this month. As has been the case with pre­vi­ous elec­toral cy­cles, this one left me with many take­aways.

To cap­ture the im­por­tance of th­ese take­aways and why they give pause for thought, it is im­por­tant to out­line some things that have been said or writ­ten about gov­er­nance in Rwanda over the past 24 years. One is the claim that there is “no po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion” in the coun­try.

This links smoothly to an­other claim: Po­lit­i­cal space in Rwanda is closed. This par­tic­u­lar claim al­lowed would-be ex­porters of democ­racy to Rwanda to de­mand that the “po­lit­i­cal space” be “opened up” to al­low for wider par­tic­i­pa­tion.

In re­sponse to the pres­sure to open up, the author­i­ties in­sist that theirs is a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem whose work­ings re­flect the coun­try’s uniquely dif­fi­cult his­tory and a col­lec­tive de­ter­mi­na­tion by those upon whom pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­sur­ing po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in the long run has fallen in the past two decades.

Their pri­mary aim is to en­sure that past mis­takes that made in­sta­bil­ity in­evitable are not re­peated. A key mis­take, the ar­gu­ment of­ten goes, was un­re­strained com­pe­ti­tion amid sys­tem­atic use of sec­tar­i­an­ism by those in pur­suit of power to fur­ther their am­bi­tions. It is easy for those given to ap­ply­ing stan­dard tem­plates to ev­ery sit­u­a­tion to dis­miss th­ese ar­gu­ments as ex­cuses, and to refuse to judge Rwanda’s po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity on its mer­its.

The best way to ex­am­ine the ques­tion of po­lit­i­cal space and the de­gree to which in Rwanda it is open or closed is to look at the num­ber of po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the coun­try, changes in thenum­ber over time, how po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns are con­ducted and man­aged, and the or­gan­i­sa­tion of elec­tions. Con­trary to the all-too-com­mon claim that Rwanda is a one-party state, there are ac­tu­ally 11 po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the coun­try. Here, more than else­where in East Africa, elec­tion cam­paigns are a mat­ter of con­stantly shift­ing al­liances. Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions can see sev­eral par­ties spon­sor­ing in­di­vid­ual can­di­dates as hap­pened in 2003 and 2010.

Then comes an­other pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and the same par­ties forgo the op­por­tu­nity to spon­sor their own can­di­dates and in­stead choose to rally be­hind a sin­gle can­di­date as hap­pened when Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame con­tested and was re-elected for a third term in 2017.

Come par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, some par­ties will go it alone while oth­ers seek al­liances to bol­ster their chances of se­cur­ing a seat or two.

Rwan­dan po­lit­i­cal par­ties may not be so frac­tious, but they are not im­mune to bit­ter splits. One such split saw some mem­bers of the So­cial Demo­cratic Party, the sec­ond largest be­hind the RPF, walk away to form an­other party, which was nearly still­born be­cause of in­fight­ing that ended with its first leader spend­ing a few years in prison.

In­ter­est­ingly, a lot of what hap­pens inside Rwanda in terms of po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion and align­ments and re-align­ments is largely un­known out­side the coun­try’s bor­ders. One rea­son is that in­ter-party po­lit­i­cal con­tests are largely se­date af­fairs en­tail­ing nei­ther vi­o­lence nor ver­bal fights of the kind that feed me­dia head­lines. Nor are po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns in Rwanda oc­ca­sions for politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal par­ties to spend for­tunes on buy­ing po­lit­i­cal sup­port or pay­ing hooli­gans to dis­rupt each other’s ral­lies, an­other as­pect of pol­i­tics else­where that sells news­pa­pers and keeps peo­ple glued to their ra­dios and tele­vi­sion screens.

An­other rea­son is that there has been no oc­ca­sion when the army or the po­lice have had to in­ter­vene in in­ter-party po­lit­i­cal con­tests and thereby ig­nite the kind of con­tro­ver­sies that re­ver­ber­ate around the globe. Ar­guably the most strik­ing as­pect of par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics by Rwan­dans, is the op­por­tu­nity af­forded to ev­ery el­i­gi­ble voter, wher­ever they live in the world, to have their say in elec­toral con­tests. It is prob­a­bly not that sig­nif­i­cant that Rwan­dans in the di­as­pora can and do vote in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. What is sig­nif­i­cant is that vot­ers in any lo­ca­tion in the world can or­gan­ise them­selves to vote, in­clud­ing su­per­vis­ing the elec­tions and tal­ly­ing the votes, and then re­lay the re­sults back to the na­tional elec­toral com­mis­sion in Ki­gali.

Even Africa’s much-vaunted democ­ra­cies, the likes of Ghana and oth­ers from which the rest of us are sup­posed to learn, do not go this far in en­fran­chis­ing

The most strik­ing as­pect of par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics by Rwan­dans, is the op­por­tu­nity af­forded to ev­ery el­i­gi­ble voter, wher­ever they live in the world, to have their say in elec­toral con­tests

their cit­i­zens. Even more sig­nif­i­can, th­ese re­cent leg­isla­tive elec­tions have demon­strated that even polls that ob­servers may not con­sider nsuf­fi­ciently im­por­tant to merit all the re­sources re­quired to en­able the di­as­pora to vote are taken se­ri­ously in Rwanda.

Which is why on Septem­ber 2, a day be­fore Rwan­dans inside the coun­try went out to vote, their com­pa­tri­ots in the di­as­pora trooped to dozens of polling sta­tions out­side the coun­try. Even Rwan­dans who or­di­nar­ily live in the coun­try but hap­pen to be trav­el­ling on that day voted from wher­ever they were. So much for the coun­try’s “closed” po­lit­i­cal space.

Come par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, some par­ties will go it alone while oth­ers seek al­liances.”

The Demo­cratic Green Party of Rwanda can­di­date Dr Frank Habineza wav­ing to sup­port­ers.

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