Rwanda Holds First Election Since Genocide

Times Staff Writer

The first presidential election since this country was roiled in a massive genocidal conflict in 1994 will take place today.

With Rwanda's economy on the rebound and special genocide courts meting out punishment at a quickening clip, the poll was billed as further evidence that the "land of 1,000 hills" was on the mend after interethnic violence that left more than 800,000 dead.

But the campaign has been marred by allegations that President Paul Kagame has tilted the contest his way by banning the main opposition party, jailing his opponents and exploiting memories of the 1994 killings to discredit his competitors.

On April 15 the Rwandan parliament, at the prompting of Kagame's administration, voted to disband the Republican Democratic Movement, the leading opposition party and the only one in a position to mount a serious challenge for the presidency.

Calling the party "divisionist" -- a hot-button term that refers to those who seek to resurrect Rwanda's deadly inter- ethnic feuds -- the Kagame government has marginalized its opponents and appears to be on the cusp of a landslide victory.

The government has also been accused of using even harsher tactics: ignoring opposition candidates on state-run media, "disappearing" leading dissidents and on Saturday jailing 10 election observers working for candidate Faustin Twagiramungu, formerly of the Republican Democratic Movement.

"According to the law we have to have our own election observers," Twagiramungu said at a news conference Sunday at his hilltop apartment in this capital city. "But how can we verify the elections as long as our observers are in jail?"

Twagiramungu, a former post-genocide prime minister who returned to campaign for president after eight years of self-imposed exile, said that he was given no explanation as to his workers' arrest at a Kigali restaurant Saturday night. Two of the 12 men sought by authorities fled and escaped arrest, Twagiramungu said.

Other leading Rwandans faced similar perils after a parliamentary commission named 46 supporters of the Republican Democratic Movement -- the party Twagiramungu led and would have represented in the current election -- and labeled them "divisionist." They include a former secretary of state, five presidential deputies, three military officers, six members of the prime minister's staff, one ambassador, a former governor and the former head of the National Public Transportation Service. Six supporters have been arrested and held incommunicado, and at least three others have fled the country.

Critics of the government say the arrests and the disbandment of the main opposition party led to the overwhelming approval -- 93% -- in May of a new constitution that favors one-party control.

The constitution will give the president a seven-year term and sweeping powers to appoint the prime minister, the Supreme Court president, the governor of the Central Bank, provisional governors, and police and security officers. The document also sharply curtails grass-roots politics, prohibiting parties from organizing on the local level and requiring them to "constantly reflect the unity of the Rwandan nation."

Kagame's supporters insist that the election campaign has been proper. But a Human Rights Watch report in May criticized the government for changing "the conditions under which the elections will be held."

Rwanda's darkest period lasted just 100 days. Machete-wielding mobs poured through the streets, slaughtering nearly one-seventh of Rwanda's population of about 7 million. Most of the violence was directed at the minority Tutsi population, though moderate Hutus were also killed in droves.

Recently released documents show Clinton administration officials knew the extent of the bloodshed but chose not to intervene. President Clinton later apologized to the Rwandan people and promised the U.S. would stop such killings in the future.

Since the massacres, Rwanda has established three court systems -- an international tribunal directed by the United Nations, state-run courts and traditional community courts -- and conducted tens of thousands of genocide trials.

Meanwhile, the country has been rebuilding with international aid, constructing schools and opening the nation up to investment. Last year, Rwanda's economic growth was 10% -- one of Africa's best.

Kagame's aggressive foreign policy -- sending elite troops into neighboring Congo, for example -- has been less successful. He had to withdraw them after Britain and other donors threatened to stop sending millions of dollars in aid if Kagame continued to spend exorbitant sums of money on arms.

The Dutch government recently froze about $280,000 in a largely symbolic protest of Kagame's campaign tactics.

Despite growing concern among international observers, a coalition of local church groups, human rights organizations and other sectors of civil society held a press conference Sunday calling the campaign fair. The three coalition members who spoke shrugged off suggestions that recent arrests of opposition supporters might affect the election.

Twagiramungu appeared resigned to the fact that he would almost certainly lose the election. "The referee is the man we are playing the game with," he said.

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