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 the number 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 their citizens.
Even more significant, these recent legislative elections have demonstrated that even polls that observers may not consider insufficiently 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.