Today is the deadline for political parties to submit their lists of candidates for Rwanda’s parliamentary elections in September. Late Friday afternoon, the Rwanda Governance Board, the state body responsible for licensing political parties, granted registration to the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, an opposition party which has been struggling to obtain this precious document for almost four years.
It’s good news, but with only a month left until polling day, how can the Green Party participate meaningfully in the elections?
Rwanda’s last three elections have all been characterized by a stark absence of opposition to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The figures speak for themselves. President Paul Kagame won the 2003 presidential elections with a majority of more than 95 percent, and the 2010 elections with 93.08 percent. The RPF won the 2008 parliamentary elections with 78.76 percent of the vote, a figure that was reportedly revised downwards from around 98 percent to make the outcome look more credible.
The 2010 elections marked a low point, with a succession of attacks on opponents and critics. The Green Party’s vice-president, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was one of the victims. He was found dead, his body mutilated, on July 14, just weeks before the elections. Three years on, no one has been brought to justice for his murder. The party was devastated and effectively fell apart. It is only just beginning to get back on its feet again.
The leaders of two other opposition parties – Victoire Ingabire of the FDU-Inkingi and Bernard Ntaganda of the PS-Imberakuri – have been in prison since 2010. The FDU-Inkingi didn’t even manage to register. The PS-Imberakuri did, but was taken over by a faction favorable to the RPF. The faction loyal to Ntaganda has been paralysed by constant threats and intimidation.
Strictly speaking, the RPF is not the only party in Rwanda. Several others are represented in parliament and will be fielding candidates in next month’s elections. But these parties do not play the role of a political opposition. Not only do they not challenge the RPF, they actively support it. The upcoming elections appear to have generated little public interest in the country. Many Rwandans believe the outcome is a fait accompli.
If the Rwandan government wants to demonstrate its commitment to democracy, it will have to do more than register an already weakened party at the eleventh hour. When the state stops threatening, arresting, and harassing opposition activists and putting administrative blocks in their way, then Rwandans can mark a victory for true democracy.