Rwanda's presidential elections: Who is the ideal candidate?

As the Presidential elections approach, people both inside and outside Rwanda are voicing their expectations and assertions of ideal candidates.

As the Presidential elections approach, people both inside and outside Rwanda are voicing their expectations and assertions of ideal candidates.

The National Electoral Commission has given the green light to three out of six presidential hopefuls who fulfilled the minimum requirements to run for the highest office.


But what are the qualities that citizens consider important in their evaluation of presidential candidates?


Citizens can appraise standards by which presidential contenders are assessed, elected or rejected based on the role of the presidency and its impact on daily life of the population.


In a 1980 article on political behavior, Donald Kinder and colleagues referred to what they called “an ideal presidential prototype”, outlining features that citizens believe best define an exemplary president.

They highlight two important elements that I think are pertinent in Rwanda’s case - personality and performance.

Personality, they argue, is based on judgments about what an ideal president should and should not be like as a person, suggesting that character traits that a candidate amplifies is important.

Performance, the authors say, is about what an ideal president should do or should avoid doing while in office.

Similar arguments by Gronke (1999) offered three dimensions of assessing potential candidates: prospective policy judgments (what are you going to do for me tomorrow?); retrospective assessments (what did you do for me yesterday?); and personality assessments (what kind of leader are you?).

In both arguments, leadership and performance are mutually reinforcing, in that the personality of a leader impacts their performance.

Donald Kinder and his colleagues analysed many attributes associated with personality and performance including competence, knowledge, trust, weakness and problem solving.

They argue that the most important qualities seem to be competence and trust; meaning that a would-be president should not only be technically adept, but also capable of facing hard choices and tackling formidable problems.

This brings me to our own candidates. We recognized these qualities in the incumbent, President Paul Kagame. He led the liberation struggle, rebuilt a collapsed state and reconstructed a devastated economy and social fabric, as well as successfully discharged his mandates for two consecutive terms.

Rwandans who two years ago petitioned the Parliament, asking for the two-term limit to be dropped, were also clear in that regard: they were lifted out of poverty; they are secure and live in peace and harmony; their children are in schools on Government sponsored schemes; and their hope the future is bright.

But how do we assess new hopefuls? What are they going to do for us tomorrow? What have they previously done for us? What kind of leaders are they?

In the absence of a candidate’s fulfillment of promises or successfully discharged responsibilities in previous positions, either in public or business, and how that performance is rated by the electorate, we can only test our presidential hopefuls by measuring them against the incumbent, or holding them up against a theorised version as mentioned above and see how they do.

Many would agree that we shouldn’t even try to compare the incomparable. The record of the incumbent speaks volumes that none of the aspirants can claim a small fraction of, both in terms of personality and performance.

Most of the newcomers have no record of known public office, let alone executive positions. While some of those who dominated media headlines over dubious stories failed the NEC test, my sense is that these stories were already an indication of kind of leadership the potential candidates would likely display if elected into office.

Those incidents are reflective of not only their personality, but also their performance. Beyond the basic constitutional requirements, potential candidates should have requisite skills, traits and means to sell to/and convince the electorate.

I am not advocating for only those candidates with well-established machineries and experience, nor discouraging young people from dreaming or thinking big for that matter.

Given the central role that the government affords young Rwandans, my views are not intended to promote gerontocracy since presidential ambition is a very noble goal. But the big dream can only materialize if it is guided by clear goals and determination, working step by step towards achieving it.

It is undisputable that voters would certainly trust leaders who have set strong foundations for their institutions built upon their understanding of example they set, and their consistent focus on ethics, morals, and values that allow followers to buy-in, compare to, and model after.

In the Republic, Plato (424-348) agreed that a state can never be well governed unless its rulers are virtuous. His student Aristotle challenged many of his teachings, including his radical views on gender, but the two were in agreement that personal virtue and effective leadership are intertwined.

Thus, an ideal candidate would be one that others want to follow, who gets things accomplished, and a leader who enjoys changing the status quo, while assisting others to make change a reality.

Rwanda, with its high ambitions, needs candidates with genuine strength of character and high level of moral standing to succeed in the demanding role that presidents occupy.

The incumbent has consistently shown high level of morals and values, thus setting the standard high. It remains to be seen if any other candidate in the race can convince Rwandans that they are fit for purpose.

The writer is a Rwandan diplomat and researcher based in New York. He is writing in his personal capacity.


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