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Ethnic tension, harassment mar Rwanda's first multiparty vote

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda - Campaigning in Rwanda's first real presidential election ended Saturday amid accusations that authorities harassed opposition supporters and that a candidate exploited ethnic friction in a country that saw one of history's worst genocides.

President Paul Kagame ended his campaign with two rallies. His main rival, Faustin Twagiramungu, stayed home and rebutted allegations that he raised tensions between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis.

The vote Monday has been billed as a showcase for how far Rwanda has come in the nine years since an extremist Hutu government, afraid of losing power, orchestrated a 100-day slaughter of a half-million people, mostly minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.

Kagame, a Tutsi leader of rebels who ended the slaughter, has the support of seven of the country's nine recognized parties. He is expected to win the vote, Rwanda's first genuine multiparty election since independence from Belgium in 1962.

His main opposition is Twagiramungu, who pushed for multiparty politics in the early 1990s and served as prime minister in the first post-genocide government before a falling out with Kagame.

There are two other challengers: Jean-Nepomuscene Nayinzira, an independent; and Alivera Mukabaramba of the new Party for Progress and Concord.

Kagame's supporters rallied to the sounds of traditional Rwandan music and the pop songs of Britney Spears at a gathering in Nyamirambo, a low-income neighborhood in the capital, Kigali.

"I will vote for Kagame because he is good at the job," Priscah Uwimana, a student, said. "We have security. The economy is working, and he has included both Hutus and Tutsis in government."

The candidates pushed similar platforms - the need for accelerated economic development, national unity and security - during a campaign overshadowed by charges that authorities harassed and intimidated Twagiramungu's supporters.

Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, "has used pressure tactics including the detention of opposition supporters, forced conscription into RPF party ranks and violent intimidation, including death threats, to undermine support for the opposition," human rights group Amnesty International said Friday.

Police impounded Twagiramungu's campaign literature, alleging it promoted divisions between Hutus and Tutsis in violation of electoral law.

Twagiramungu has denied the charge.

He stopped holding rallies, instead giving interviews and accusing authorities of discrediting him with lies and thwarting his campaign plans.

"I know that after nine years ... people now desire change. I've seen the feeling of the people in my rallies that they really want a change, and my supporters have been blocked from attending, all of which indicates that Kagame senses that he can lose this election," he said in an interview.

European Union electoral observers have confirmed reports of authorities harassing the opposition - as well as negative campaigning by the opposition - said Colette Flesch, head of a team of monitors.

"Some of the reports we hear are certainly a source of preoccupation," said Flesch, a member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg.

Kagame's well-financed campaign has included e-mail debates between supporters and opponents, text messages to cell phones, billboards on roads winding through this tiny central African country and air time on government-run radio and television.

"All the candidates except Kagame complain of lack of funding and resources to run their campaigns," Flesch said.


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