Published in Information (Denmark)

1st October 2003

Posted at willum.com

 

 

Distrust sparked low turnout

 

 

 

Election observers, diplomatic sources and voters reported a low turnout at yesterday's parliamentary election in Rwanda in protest against exclusion of opposition candidates

 

By Bjørn Willum,
special correspondent of the Danish daily Information

 

 

 

KIGALI - Dressed in white pants, neat brown shoes and a long-sleeved grey shirt, a supporter of opposition politician CÚlestin Kabanda stood at the roadside in the shadow of a tree, while cars rumbled by. Just some one hundred meters away, grey tents had been put up on the trampled-down red soil that is found all over the tiny country.

All across the country, tents and at schools draped with flags and streamers in the national green-blue-yellow colours were set for parliamentary election day - according to the government the first free of its kind since the country gained its independence from Belgium, the former colonial power, in 1962. Nevertheless, he was not sure that he bothered to vote. Maybe sometime later in the day.

Many of his friends had decided to stay away from ballot boxes, he explained. "Those people whom they had counted on voting for had been deleted off the list."

Friday night CÚlestin Kabanda and another prominent opposition candidate, Jean-Baptiste Sindikubwabo, were accused of having falsified some of the 600 signatures that is needed to stand as an independent candidate.

It was by time of going to press impossible to obtain actual figures on the poll turnout but diplomatic sources, election observers and voters told Information that the turnout appeared remarkably lower than at last month's presidential elections, where Rwandan President Paul Kagame received more than 95 per cent of votes, according to the National Electoral Commission.

Distrust sparked low turnout
"The turnout is low. You need to interpret that," a diplomat said with a smile. On the one hand, he said, some people do not know what the parliament is all about and why they have to vote again since the president already won one election.

"The second interpretation is that many people have no interest in the whole thing after what happened in august," he continued with ill-concealed reference to fiddling with ballot papers, lack of closed voting booths and pressure reported in connection with the presidential election of August 25.

"There were not many at the polling station," recalled one uniformed male voter in his thirties, having returned from casting his vote for Rwanda's Liberal Party. "Last time they were forced to vote for the RPF [the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the government party, ed.], so they did not want to vote this time. To vote or not to vote, that is the same thing."

Polling in an open room
And according to one election observer contacted by Information, there has at several polling stations been good reason for such distrustfulness.

The poll was set to open at six o'clock in the morning. "The first place we arrived before six, and they had already begun. People were not using voting booths. They received a paper, after they received it, they put it into the box - in front of the electoral commission."

"When I entered, they changed the procedure immediately, " the observer said, adding that people were then instructed to use the closed voting booths.

Although the scenario was repeated in several places, the person in question only believes that election observers saw the tip of the iceberg - in particular those of foreign nationality.

According to a press briefing from the National Electoral Commission, 1,617 observers were registered for the election, of which 167 were foreigners - most of these from the EU - who thus had to drive from one polling station to the next during the day.

Another problem was the lack of ink in voting booths - the actual marking of the ballot paper takes place by the voter leaving his or her fingerprint next to a candidate or party.

Instead, the ink was at some stations situated at a table right in front of polling officials. In this way, it was possible to swiftly dip one's thumb, mark the paper and hand back the ballot paper, which in many cases incidentally was folded in such a way that only the names of the government party's, candidates were visible, the election observer recounts.

If you in such cases insist in using a voting booth, the observer said, "you make yourself extremely suspicious."

An EU election observer, who asked not to be identified either, confirmed after polling stations had closed to Information that there had been "very few people compared to the presidential elections" and that EU observers had found "a few irregularities". Declining further comment, the person referred to the official report on the election by EU observers that is scheduled for publication on Friday.

The first reports on the counting of votes indicated that the RPF had won the election by a wide margin.