Democracy, Rwanda-style

by our African affairs editor Pieternel Gruppen, 28 May 2003



The new constitution serves to strengthen President Paul Kagame´s position

The people of Rwanda have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new constitution, paving the way for elections later this year and providing measures to prevent a repeat of the 1994 genocide, which killed an estimated 800.000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Analysts, however, question whether the new constitution will foster reconciliation and democracy.

It was the first time since the 1994 genocide that Rwandans went to the polls. More than 90 percent of voters plumped in favour of a new constitution in Tuesday's referendum. But what exactly did they say "yes" to?

The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of President Paul Kagame says the new basic law will strenghthen democracy in a country beset by ethnic animosity. It stresses that any future government will be made up of more than one party.

Equal rights?
But Francois Grignon of the International Crisis Group says he doubts whether there'll be a level playing field for all political parties in Rwanda.

    Link: listen to ICG's Francois Grignon, 0'32"Multiparty elections are going to take place indeed and political parties are going to be recognised but they are going to be allowed activities in a framework which is so tight, so controlled by the RPF that there is no fair ground between the parties. For instance the political parties are going to be allowed to be registered but will only be able to meet on national and district level."

No local campaigning
Seen as a source of ethnic hatred and animosity, political campaigning is no longer be permitted on a local level, says the RPF. But critics allege that the ruling party has ignored the rule itself. Moreover they argue that, by permitting an executive president to serve two seven-year terms, the new constitution has only served to strengthen President Kagame's hold on power. 

The International Crisis Group says there's no evidence to suggest an end to political repression in Rwanda. In recent years, prominent opposition leaders, including former Hutu president Pasteur Bizumungu, have landed behind bars.

Democracy first
The government is also preparing to slap a ban on the country's main Hutu-dominated opposition party. There will be no reconciliation in Rwanda as long as there's no genuine democracy, says Mr Grignon.

    Link: listen to ICG's Francois Grignon, 0'41"I don't think this constitution is going to improve reconciliation inside Rwanda. You have got a situation now where political party activities are limited. There is some bitterness, both with Hutu's and Tutsi's, about the fact that the power is concentrated in the hands of the RPF and that there is no possibility to challenge that power in the name of national unity and reconciliation."

With the new constitution adopted, Rwandan voters will go to the polls this summer to elect a new parliament and president. These elections will show whether Rwanda has truly taken the path of democracy and reconciliation.