Published in Information (Denmark)

4th October 2003

Posted at willum.com

 

 

EU criticism of Rwanda election

 

 

 

Election observers yesterday criticised the handling of the parliamentary election. There were reports of election fraud and threats against the opposition but the EU refused to take a stance on the validity of the poll

By Bjørn Willum (KIGALI),
special correspondent of the Danish daily Information

and Annegrethe Rasmussen (LONDON),
European correspondent of the Danish daily Information

 

 

 

KIGALI/LONDON - EU election observers in Rwanda yesterday severely criticised this week's parliamentary election, saying the democracy in the country was "not yet fully assured".

Among the charges were stuffing of ballot boxes, manipulation of ballot papers and intimidation of the opposition. Apart from that, the presence of the 34 EU observer teams "was not always welcomed", as the official diplomatically phrased statement read.

For example, one international observer told Information how she was first refused entry to a polling station and later asked to leave before the counting of votes was set to begin. When she insisted on staying, it turned out that all ballot papers had been neatly folded in the same way despite the fact that the size of ballot box slits normally required that ballot papers be stuffed and squeezed into boxes.

Moreover, one particularly large fingerprint kept popping up during the counting of the nearly 600 votes - in Rwanda ballots are marked with a fingerprint - all of which turned out to be in favour of the RPF government party.

According to official figures, the RPF won a landslide victory of 73 per cent, with the three opposition parties - that all backed Rwandan President Paul Kagame at last month's presidential election - by and large shared the remaining votes among themselves.

"I was [] struck by the fact that none of the independent candidates managed to get any significant number of votes," Colette Flesch, the head of the EU observer mission in the country, said at a press conference.

No clarification on validity
But Colette Flesch had "no comments" when Information afterwards asked her whether the result was valid and whether a re-election would be appropriate. "There will not be a re-election, you know it and I know it."

She did on the other hand refuse to use the expression 'free and fair' about the election. "We said what we had to say, we criticised what we thought went wrong and we think - we hope - that next time around these things will be taken into consideration."

"It is pretty clear that these are not free and fair elections," commented a third international observer, who had also witnessed a '100 per cent counting'. "There really is no democracy here."

That interpretation was confirmed by a spokesman of the European Commission. "The indication is that the poll in the widest sense has not been taking place in a desirable manner. But the cooperation between the EU and Rwanda will continue to the benefit of a broader involvement of interest groups from the all of the civil society, and we will continue encouraging this in order to ensure a continued democratization of Rwanda," he said.

"The Commission is relieved that the poll took place without violent acts as such and we now await the final report that is to be discussed with EU member states in an active and constructive process."

Questionably high turnout figure
In Rwanda, the EU also questioned the high turnout, which according to the Rwandan National Electoral Commission was at 96.5 per cent. "We have observed that the participation has been visibly less than during the presidential election. This holds true for all polling stations we visited," Colette Flesch commented.

On the day of the presidential election, people formed lengthy queues long before polling stations opened at six o'clock in the morning, but none of the observers whom Information consulted had this time experienced any run on ballot boxes.

Instead diplomats, observers and voters said many chose to stay away as a protest against expected electoral fraud and exclusion of the two most prominent independent opposition candidates few days before the election.

"I do not at all believe in the 96.5 per cent but I can't tell you that on the record," a very high-ranking member of the EU observer mission told Information.

Rumours about observers
Journalists from the local government-controlled media in Rwanda, which has been running smear campaigns against independent parliamentary candidates, as expected brought their guns into position against EU observers yesterday.

One journalist thus accused Colette Flesch of having favoured the opposition because she after the presidential election campaign had accompanied one of the losing candidates to the Rwandan Supreme Court where he delivered a complaint about the election.

"Dear Sir, when he delivered his complaint, I was in Luxembourg. That is ridiculous," Colette Flesch hit back, greatly amusing the audience of the press conference.