KIGALI – Rwandan President Paul Kagame celebrated an overwhelming election victory by dancing with thousands of supporters early Tuesday, after opposition parties were banned from the vote and some Rwandans said they were forced to cast ballots for him.
The country’s election commission said preliminary results indicated Kagame would win more than 90 percent of Monday’s vote. While Kagame faced three opponents on the ballot, analysts said none of the three presented any real competition.
Human rights groups and other critics also had decried the arrest of several opposition figures in the lead-up to Monday’s election, and noted that several others were killed or attacked under suspicious circumstances. The Rwandan government has denied any involvement in those attacks.
Tens of thousands of supporters celebrated Kagame’s victory at the national sports stadium late Monday and early Tuesday. Kagame joined in the festivities, dancing on stage as bands belted out music. Preliminarily results were announced around 4 a.m. local time.
Monday’s presidential election was Rwanda’s second since the 1994 genocide, when at least half a million people – mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were killed.
Much of the sharpest criticism has come from ethnic Hutus against Kagame’s Tutsi-led government. One Hutu political leader, Victoire Ingabire, who was arrested earlier this year on charges of genocide ideology and was not allowed to run, said that if Kagame’s regime continues its repression, the country could spiral into chaos.
Kagame has been credited with stabilizing Rwanda and for its post-genocide economic growth. Kagame has tried to downplay the role of ethnicity in post-genocide Rwanda, and people in the country rarely refer to themselves as Hutu or Tutsi and can face charges for speaking publicly about ethnicity.
In the U.S., State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that the U.S. was encouraged by what appeared to be a peaceful election.
“We have expressed concerns in the run-up to these elections regarding what appeared to be attempts by the government of Rwanda to limit freedom of expression, but we’ll await the results of the elections before commenting further,” Crowley said.
One village an hour outside of Kigali visited by an Associated Press reporter showed what appeared to be voting irregularities. Two leaders in the village said they had woken people up in the middle of the night to force them to vote before polls opened at 6 a.m.. Three villagers told AP they had voted before 5 a.m., and one as early as 3 a.m.
Karangwa denied that any votes were cast before polls opened. He did however say that voting concluded by 9:30 a.m. in some locations. The villagers would not give their names for fear of reprisals and asked the AP not to identify the village by name. Results from one station in the village showed that more than 98 percent of ballots were cast for Kagame.
The run-up to the campaign was marred by a series of attacks on outspoken critics of Kagame’s government. Rwanda’s government has denied any involvement.
The vice president of an opposition party that couldn’t get registered was killed in mid-July. In June, former army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa was shot and wounded outside his home in South Africa.
Five days after the shooting in South Africa, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist at a critical newspaper in the capital, was shot dead outside his home in Kigali hours after publishing an online article linking Rwandan intelligence to the attack.
*MAX DELANY/ AP