Although genuine democracy requires more than just elections, elections and democracy complement each other and thus elections are central to promotion of democracy.
Peoples, Nation and State or even a Family setup must have an organized system for the smooth running of its affairs and such a system is established through a direct or indirect representation at various levels.
It is difficult or almost impossible for an entire people within a Nation, State or Country to engage in governing the affairs of their state.
Thus resorting to govern through representatives selected or elected by the people in accordance with rules and standard laid down by the law or other due process accepted by societies.
The due process of law must be adhered to in order to avoid irregularities and chaos. The systematic processes of election or selection will guard against unnecessary tensions and conflicts which could lead to undesirable consequences, hence the concept of free and fair elections.
A free and fair election can be said to be a direct dividend of democracy and vice-versa, because, there can only be free and fair election where there is democracy, and there can never be democracy when there is no free and fair election. In his book titled ‘The Spirit of Laws’ Montesquieu states that; “in the case of elections in either a republic or a democracy, voters alternate between being the rulers of the country and being the subjects of the government.
By the act of voting, the people operate in a sovereign (or ruling) capacity, acting as “masters” to select their government’s “servants”. Also, by the same act, citizens are exercising one of their fundamental human rights.
Elections are also important because they endorse legitimacy of government. Without regular, free and fair elections, governments may not be able to claim legitimacy either to govern the citizens or to enter into international obligations on behalf of the people.
“The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent,” says the English scholar, John Locke.
The history of elections goes back to the old and ancient Greek and Roman States. Elections also were conducted in ancient Athens, in Rome, and in the selection of popes and Holy Roman emperors, as well as the selection of Caliphate in the ancient Islamic history after the death of Prophet Muhammad. In the contemporary world, elections can be traced back to the emergence of representative government in Europe and North America in the 17th century.
Although, across Western Europe and North America, adult male suffrage was ensured almost everywhere by 1920, the woman suffrage was not established until 1928 in Britain, 1944 in France, 1949 in Belgium, and 1971 in Switzerland, to mention but a few. In the USA, African Americans were not allowed to vote until the passage of Voting Right Act in 1965.
The aim of the US Voting Right Act of 1965 was to give broader election and voting rights to Americans, including women and African Americans.
The history of elections in Rwanda is one associated with manipulations, violence and destruction. The first attempt to conduct elections in Rwanda was in the 1950s when the colonial administration was under the UN pressure to prepare Rwandans for self rule like was happening all over colonies.
According to research done by the Rwandan Senate, the introduction of universal suffrage in 1956, limited to able-bodied adult males at sub-chieftaincy level, but at the higher level, the status quo established by the Belgians remained intact.
The next elections were parliamentary, held concurrently with the referendum on whether to retain the monarchy or change to a republic in 1961. These were however held in an atmosphere of fear, characterized by manipulations, violence and destruction.
Tens of thousands had been and were being killed at the time while hundreds of thousands went into exile under the pretext of the so called social revolution of 1959.
The sham elections of 1961 brought to power MDR-PARMEHUTU with Kayibanda as head of state, replacing the interim one, Mr. Mbonyumutwa Dominic, with UNAR’s few legislators as the opposition. When the Tutsi refugees attempted an armed incursion into Rwanda in 1963, all the UNAR legislators were killed by Kayibanda and thereafter Rwanda became a one party repressive state up to early 1990s.
When Habyarimana captured power in 1973, he presided over a one party rule system in which he was always the sole presidential candidate, always getting 100% of the vote. In the 80s, Habyarimana introduced legislative elections but based on one party rule.
The parliamentarians were exclusively Hutu males. Such is the situation that the post genocide government inherited.
The above scenario, coupled with the 1994 Tutsi genocide explains why the post genocide government approached the issue of elections cautiously; deciding to start with grassroots elections in 1999, election of leaders at district level in 2001, referendum on the new constitution in 2003, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections later that year.
2003 is a turning point in the history of Rwanda because it marked the beginning of regular elections both at local and national level, with a new constitution and clear guidelines set by the National Electoral Commission.
Even then however, political parties could only compete for elective posts at the national and not at local level. The situation changed a couple of years ago and all political parties are now free to compete in the local elections. When one looks at the timeline of the elections that were conducted from 1999 to date, the picture of how far Rwanda has come in terms of elections becomes vivid.
March 1999, election of local councilors and representatives In Late 1999, a Commission on Legal and Constitutional Affairs was established to consult the population and propose a new constitutional that would put Rwanda on a democratic journey;March 2001, the then communes were transformed into districts and mayors and councilors were elected;
August 2003, Rwanda held the first democratic presidential elections ever in her history. October 2003, Rwanda held multiparty parliamentary elections;
August 2008, 2nd Parliamentary elections since the adoption of the new constitution in 2003;August 2010, 2nd presidential elections since the adoption of a new constitution.
February 2011, local leaders’ elections from the village, cell, sector, district to Kigali city level;Late this year 2011, Rwanda will hold the second senatorial elections.
The positive aspect of the conduct of elections in Rwanda is better present by international elections observer teams. For example, Mr. Cashman of the EU observer mission noted a positive conduct of elections in Rwanda after the 2008 parliamentary elections using the following words; “The process of democratisation in Rwanda since the end of the Genocide is remarkable. The elections were conducted in a peaceful environment, a fact that deserves to be commended.
Also the massive election of women to the chamber of deputies is a world wide record that Rwanda can highly be proud of”.The 2008 legislative elections saw Rwanda breaking the record of female representation in parliament at 56 percent and subsequently brought the first woman Speaker in the Chamber of deputies in the region.
No wonder then that the EU observation mission concluded that the 2008 elections signified all elements required to meet international election standards, and best practices.
Fred Cowell of Consultancy Africa correctly sums it up after the 2008 parliamentary elections that “the peaceful management of the election and high turnout indicate that a voting culture has been instilled into Rwanda and that support for the participatory institutions.”
The Commonwealth Observer Team had this to say about the 2010 presidential elections; “Overall Commonwealth Observer Teams were very positive regarding the conduct of the opening and voting processes in 2010 presidential elections. Voters turned out in extremely large numbers (reflecting the NECs stated turnout rate of 97.5%) and conducted themselves in an extremely calm and orderly manner. On the two days before the election women and men from villages were observed cleaning and decorating designated Polling Centres.
There was evidence of a strong level of commitment, with the men mainly responsible for outside decorations using material easily available (such as banana trees). Women washed classrooms and decorated the Polling Centre with local fabrics, flowers and grasses, reminiscent of a wedding or community festival.
Polling Stations were well prepared for their task, in that they were largely ready to open on time, had all relevant materials and were well organised.
The Voter Lists seemed to be of a high quality, as most people found themselves on the list, providing for both universal suffrage and the right to vote. Polling officials were checking ID in most cases and following voting voters had a finger inked and their Voter Card was stamped.”
Rwandans appear to have zealously embraced the practice of holding regular elections clearly convinced that it is not only an indispensable part of the democratization process but also a fundamental right.
Evidently, even among modern democracies the concept of a free and fair election or even universal suffrage took centuries to evolve and become part of their values and culture. It is the same process that is taking place in Rwanda but at a faster and focused pace and as Fred Cowell puts it, “the peaceful management of the election and high turnout indicate that a voting culture has been instilled into Rwandans and their participatory institutions.”