Today, Rwandans go to the polls to elect people who will represent them in the August House. For a month, Party and Independent candidates have combed towns and the countryside for votes in what has largely been a peaceful campaign season. Typical of campaign time, different party colours and symbols have been a common sight on the streets, in markets and at bus stops.
Vehicles have had an extra role to play in the campaign. Heavily pimped with posters and in colours of different political parties, they served an added campaign role. They carried the thoughts of their owners wherever they went.
Campaigns have not been limited to radios and television in Kigali; electronic billboards located at strategic points in the city have been streaming campaign messages for different political parties. The gigantic screens are a refreshing alternative to the traditional campaign rallies.
City folks have been known to be laid back especially on matters that call for public participation but the excitement this campaign has generated even in cities cannot be mistaken. It has all been pomp and ceremony at different rallies especially in the countryside as Party and Independent candidates wooed voters. Election campaign news round up on the National Television has shown a celebratory atmosphere at the different campaign rallies in the different upcountry districts and in Kigali.
Candidates have been respectful of one another on a whole. Party manifestos have been explained to the letter and today’s polls will reveal if this message sunk in well.
Election time has also provided an opportunity for people to air out their views about the whole election exercise. At a rally in Kigali city at the weekend, I eavesdropped a conversation between two young men about the parliamentary campaigns. Basing on their language of communication and the references they made, I deduce that they were from a neighbouring country.
The two youthful folks in their native language lamented the ‘boring’ nature of the campaign. Their concern was that candidates were not dishing out money, sugar, soap and the like typical of election campaigns in their home country. For over a decade that I have been here, elections (local, parliamentary or Presidential) have puzzled many a foreigner.
As a reporter in the countryside in the previous elections, I observed with mirth the frustration some election observers were met with during the campaign and actual voting exercise. They always seemed to have come with an election template only to find that it is obsolete when applied here.
Many come with an expectation of sudden violence, incidents of vote buying, fights at polling stations, name it. Frozen expectations! With this background, I could understand the lamentations of the two young men about a ‘boring’ campaign. Civic awareness of Rwandans seems to have reached a much higher level. Indications are many.
The orderliness with which elections are held has puzzled many. Observers almost ran out of superlatives to describe the last Presidential election. Many described it as ‘a celebration.’ Polling stations were decorated by the local people who are the voters. People turned up as early as 5am on Election Day to cast their votes in time and return to their farms. Election turn-up was put at over 97 per cent.
And when it was suspected to be too good to be true, a rather silly explanation was conjured to explain this orderliness. ‘People were forced to behave’ was the brazen excuse. That was then.
But another interesting debate that this election has generated is the way our Honourable Members of Parliament are elected. In its current form, the Chamber of Deputies comprises of 80 members. Of these, 53 are elected directly through a closed list Proportional Representation (PR) system.
Individual candidates can run for elections but just like the party list, each candidate has to have at least 5% of the votes. Twenty-four seats are provided for women through indirect elections, two for youth and one seat for the representative of the disabled.
The feeling from some circles that the current system is not representative enough is not founded. The current system is egalitarian, it provides for power sharing and consensus building. Systems like ‘winner–takes-all’ would disadvantage small parties that don’t have the clout to compete favourably in an election.
The PR system makes it possible for people to vote for programmes instead of individuals. It’s amazing what people can base on to vote especially in our budding democracies. Some will vote for people because they are their tribesmen, relatives or even cast their vote basing on looks (beautiful, handsome). This is what the PR system to some extent eliminates.
Some criticism has been levelled on the size of our parliament with some pushing for a much bigger number. On the contrary, with a petite Parliament whose involvement is at national up to district level, the decentralisation drive gives councillors in districts a greater role in representing the views of the people they lead.
The current system only needs to be made better so as to enable parliament to be more responsive to the needs of the citizenry.
As for today’s polls, may the best programmes win.