When Rwandans went to the polls in the latest round of parliamentary elections on September 16, the main question was not whether the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) would win, but rather whether it would collect enough votes to retain its near absolute domination of the Chamber of Deputies.
In the 2008 poll, the RPF had swept 42 out of a possible 53 in the Lower House, with its closest challengers, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Liberal Party (PL) mustering a paltry 11 seats between them.
Indeed the RPF romped to victory in the Monday poll, garnering 76.22 per cent of the total votes cast in the category of the universal adult suffrage election, which represents 41 seats, just one shy of the seats it won five years ago.
PSD and PL too replicated their 2008 performance, trailing the RPF by a big margin; the former could only manage to retain the same number of seats it had in the previous House (seven), while the latter saw its seats increase by just one, from four to five.
That was it. Rwandans had spoken.
This left the other political party in the race, PS-Imberakuri, as well as the four independent candidates, with no chance.
None of these could even get anywhere near 1 per cent, by far below the 5 per cent threshold each aspirant is supposed to win to land a seat in the 80-member Lower Chamber.
Yet during the campaigns, observers say, there was little to choose between the RPF manifesto and those of the other contestants, particularly PSD and PL.
So why did the RPF easily retain its clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies, even as its challengers were speaking almost the same language as the ruling party?
For some years now, the RPF and its chairman, President Paul Kagame, have repeatedly trounced their rivals on the ballot paper largely due to their performance record.
Yet some critics have tried to suggest that the party’s outstanding success at the ballot over the years is largely down to weak opposition which is arguably unable to aggressively canvass for support and to sell sound manifestos.
But Annie Kairaba, the director of the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD), a grassroots based NGO, does not agree with that analysis.
She easily attributes the RPF’s overwhelming victory in this week’s election to the party’s pro-people and inclusive policies from which every Rwandan, the young and the old, women and men, have benefited almost in equal measure. The little contrast was in the detail and areas of emphasis.
“The nature of our work puts me in a privileged position to understand what the citizens at the local level feel and think about the various political players; their opinion about the RPF is that it’s a party that delivers,” she told Saturday Times on Wednesday
“They do appreciate what this government has done for them and believe it has done its best to deliver on its promises,” she said.
So naturally, Kairaba says, the people do not essentially think twice about whom to vote for when the RPF or President Kagame are involved since they have made up their minds even before the campaigns.
Asked why the voting patterns for the RPF were all in the same range across the country, she said, “you need to visit every corner of this country to appreciate how the RPF government has rolled out development programmes evenly. That’s what you get when you distribute opportunities to all citizens equally.”
The party garnered 77.02 per cent of the total votes in the Northern Province, 76.81 per cent in the Southern Province, 75.91 per cent in the Eastern Province, 75.77 per cent in the Western Province, and 74.75 per cent in the City of Kigali.
Its highest percentage, however, was recorded in the Diaspora where 97.11 per cent of the 19,632 Rwandans voted for the party.
Kairaba pointed to specific policies she believes won their party more hearts, including on such issues as land ownership and inheritance rights, which she said mean a lot among the rural folks.
Rwanda is essentially an agrarian economy and such actions as giving citizens land titles which they can use as collateral to access financing and develop themselves are hugely popular among the masses, she added.
For Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a researcher and lecturer at the Makerere University in Uganda, the RPF does not only represent the achievements the country has registered in recent years but also the future.
Rwandans, he said, believe that with the RPF in charge, their future cannot be any brighter. “They know that by keeping the RPF in charge they, too, are giving themselves a chance to make headway in life.”
“One important aspect of the leadership of Rwanda and that of RPF is that it is not associated with any particular region in the country,” he added. “The government serves the people of varied backgrounds and from every part of the country equally.”
In these elections, Golooba-Mutebi added, the choice was not about who presented the most convincing political programme to the electorate, rather who had the people’s trust.
It was the RPF, he said.
“It’s the public trust that delivered the victory to the RPF. Voters have faith in the RPF; they know it will deliver on its promises.”
This suggestion reflects the findings of several local and foreign surveys, including the Gallup, Inc., an American research-based performance and performance-management consulting company, about the level of confidence and trust the people of Rwanda have in the Government.
In one such poll recently, Gallup found that Rwandans felt the safest in Africa, at 92 per cent. The firm also conducted a survey that concluded that the Rwandan leadership enjoyed highest trust from the people across Africa.
Golooba-Mutebi cites education, economic growth and reconciliation following the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi among the areas where the RPF has scored highly and which have earned it people’s confidence.
“The (RPF-led) government is doing things across the country,” he said.
Other observers have pointed to gains in the health sector, including the hugely popular Mutuelle de Santé scheme which has made healthcare affordable even for the most disadvantaged of society, the Girinka project under which thousands of Rwandans received free cows, and a noticeably friendly business environment, among others.
The majority of Rwandans genuinely believe that the RPF is the custodian of Rwanda’s success story in the recent past and will want the party to continue consolidating these gains, said Dickson Malunda, a research specialist at the Kigali-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR).
“Many Rwandans associate good leadership they have seen over the last few years to the RPF,” he observed.
“In RPF, they see stability,” Malunda added.
The researcher reckons that other political parties will have to ‘work extremely hard’ to come closer to earning the level of public confidence the RPF enjoys at the moment.
That the election came early in President Kagame’s second term is also seen as another factor that favoured the RPF with some suggesting that voters were keen on ensuring the President had the necessary support from parliament to carry on with his development programmes.
The poll also came at a critical moment in the country’s economic agenda, coinciding with the launch of the Second Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRSII), which seeks to deliver the country to a middle income status in the next five years.
This plan, observers say, holds promise for the country’s transformation and some voters will have been keen to vote for a party that has been deeply involved in the conception and rollout of the country’s midterm development agenda.
The RPF ran alongside four smaller parties, namely the Centrist Democratic Party (PDC), Parti du Progrès et la Concorde (PPC), Parti Socialiste Rwandais (PSR) and the Ideal Democratic Party (PDI), an alliance that won each of these parties a parliamentary seat in the elections.
That means that the RPF ends up with 37 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
The other 27 seats will be occupied by the representatives of women (24), the youth (2) and the disabled (1).