On paper, Rwanda’s constitution appears inclusive. In practice, it reinforces the ruling party’s power.
2003 constitution is considered one of Africa’s most progressive. It
calls for proportional representation, guarantees seats in its
legislature to women, youth and the disabled, and transfers extensive
power to local councils, among other broad-minded features. This east
African nation is also home to one of the world’s most tightly
centralised ruling parties, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), headed by
President Paul Kagame.
A liberal constitution and a single-party state do not sit comfortably together. Many observers brush aside this contradiction by claiming that constitutional rules and institutions do not matter in Rwanda. This is a cheap answer: it is not only false but relies on a willingness to accept dated and offensive stereotypes about African governance.
The RPF is not dominant despite its constitution, but in part, because of it. Rwanda has held seven elections since the 2003 constitutional referendum, which officially terminated the country’s transitional period after the 1994 genocide.
The ruling party has easily won each election. Measured in technocratic terms, these polls have been punctual and organised competently. In contrast to other states with tarnished democratic reputations, large-scale protest or violence has not marred Rwanda’s election-day voting, ballot counting or aftermath.
While commentators disagree on the extent of electoral violence and malpractice, they agree that three factors delineate the assaults and misconduct.
First, this violence is targeted against a comparatively tiny set of opposition activists and RPF defectors, rather than the general population.
Second, the violence has never descended into wide-ranging lawlessness and chaos, such as followed Kenya’s 2007 poll; and third, the RPF would have won by a crushing margin with or without manipulating the vote.
Like many democracies, Rwanda has a staggered electoral cycle. Members of Rwanda’s Senate serve eight years while the president serves seven. National representatives of the bicameral parliament’s Chamber of Deputies serve five-year terms.
But only the president and 53 of
the 80-seat lower house legislators are elected by popular vote. Other
groups select the 27 remaining deputies: the Electoral College of the
provinces chooses 24 women, while the National Youth Council picks two;
the Federation of the Associations of the Disabled selects one.
All 26 members of the Senate are appointed.
This complex system of direct and indirect national elections is meant to widen inclusion for different groups. Instead, this obscure and convoluted scheme narrows the prospects for ordinary citizens to monitor the government, in five ways.
First, Rwanda’s 11 registered parties select their candidates for their national lists behind closed doors. The constitution does not require open-party competition. As a result, accusations of corruption and collusion taint this system.
This closely guarded candidate selection strips it of accountability or independence from ruling-party control. “The ability to manipulate the electoral college directly or indirectly, using political and social shrewdness coupled with government political ‘godfathering’, ensured that the right candidates obtained desired results,” wrote Rwandan political scientist David Kiwuwa in his 2012 book, “Ethnic Politics and Democratic Transition in Rwanda”.
Second, almost all legislators lack specific geographic constituencies. Regional conflict (classically, between the north and the south, and increasingly between Kigali, the capital, and everywhere else) has historically undermined peace and stability in Rwanda. To ensure harmony, the constitution mandates that a majority of national parliamentarians do not represent regions. The only parliamentarians with geographical constituencies are 12 senators and 24 deputies, who are appointed by provincial and sectorial councils.
This proportionality makes the system appear pluralist, which serves the interest of the ruling elite. It is important for Mr Kagame that external supporters, donors and internal critics regard Rwanda as an inclusive democracy. Ironically, if a first-past-the-post electoral system were in place, it is almost certain that the RPF would have won 100% of the seats in all past legislative elections. This, though, would have revealed the reality of RPF hegemony and unmasked the state’s democratic façade.
Third, this national system weakens small parties. If the system were based on clearly defined electoral districts, small parties could concentrate on building regional constituencies, which is cheaper and easier. This would have benefitted the Liberal and Social Democratic Parties (PL and PSD), which have traditional support bases in the educated middle classes of the south.
Instead, the current system mandates that any party must exceed 5% of the national vote to achieve representation in the lower house. This shuts out small parties and encourages them to cooperate rather than compete with the ruling party.
Fourth, the national-list centralised approach makes it easier to manipulate the vote on election day. For instance, during the 2008 vote count, the EU and Umuseso, a weekly newspaper, reported that observers at polling stations were certain that neither the PL nor the PSD had passed the 5% threshold. In the end, the parties received 7.5% and 13.1% respectively.
The RPF may even have reverse-rigged the results to make the vote tallies look more plural. Only national results, and not local vote counts, are published. This makes it onerous to verify deviations between the local count and the national totals. This not only makes it difficult to detect fraud. It also grants small parties a limited place in the system, making them dependent on the RPF.
Fifth, appointed members to the parliament entrench incumbent supremacy. As mentioned earlier, only 53 of the lower house’s 80 seats are elected by popular vote. Other groups select the remaining 27 women, youth and disabled deputies. Election to the 26-seat senate is even more complex: 12 represent provincial government councils and two represent academic institutions. The president nominates eight, while the official forum of political parties selects four.
In practice, these posts are rarely contested and the
selecting groups follow the ruling party’s dictates. Even where
competition formally exists, it is doubtful that the contest is truly
This indirect and murky election process reduces the bicameral parliament’s accountability and increases the central elite’s power. The political parties’ forum has the authority to dismiss parliamentarians, even elected ones, a right it has used to sack a significant proportion of legislators before their terms ended. Between the 2003 and 2008 elections, the forum replaced 14 deputies, approximately 25% of the lower house. This has the obvious effect of removing any dissenting voices and ensuring that as few as possible manifest in the first place, according to a July 2009 paper by the Global Institute of German and Area studies, a Hamburg-based research organisation.
The upshot is that Rwanda’s parliament is not a viable check on the president’s power. Far from being a country where the constitution is ignored to maintain the ruling party’s dominance, here the legal charter reinforces this executive control.
Kagame’s second and last constitutionally mandated term is due to end in
2017. Many critics of Rwanda’s authoritarian regime have pinned their
hopes on his departure. Regime opponents are already trying to head off
attempts to amend the constitution to allow him a third term, as
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, accomplished in 2005. This reflects
an understandable tendency to focus on the personalities and actions of
particular individuals, which are always more dramatic than the
minutiae of constitutional rules. But to build a genuinely pluralist
Rwanda, forget who occupies the government. Instead, fix the structure.
Will Jones is a junior research fellow in politics at Balliol College, University of Oxford. His research is on illiberal states in Africa, particularly Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
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