Rwandans cast votes for first time since genocide

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Millions of Rwandans cast ballots Monday in the country's first real presidential election, a vote intended as the next step in the healing of wounds of a 1994 genocide in which more than 500,000 people were killed.

The election, the first in Rwanda in which there were opposing parties, was billed as a showcase of how far the country has come since extremists from the Hutu majority slaughtered mostly minority Tutsis in 1994.

Counting ballots

An hour after voting ended, election officials began tallying votes, and partial results were expected possibly late Monday. The winner was to be announced Wednesday, electoral commission chairman Chrysologue Karangwa said.

The election was "a sign that we are developing politically," said Emmanuel Karisa, a 25-year-old university student, his thumb stained with ink from stamping it on the photograph of his candidate, one of four that appeared on the ballot.

"There was no choice in previous elections," said 73-year-old Jean-Baptiste Gakwaya, referring to the two single-party Hutu regimes that had ruled Rwanda from the time it gained independence from Belgium in 1962 until the genocide.

Incumbent popular

The incumbent Paul Kagame, a Tutsi who led the rebels who toppled the Hutu extremists in July 1994 to end the 100-day genocide, is popular and was expected to beat challenger Faustin Twagiramungu.

Kagame led the fight against remnants of the genocidal regime that attacked the country from bases in neighboring Congo. The parliament elected him president in 2000.

A third candidate, Jean-Nepomuscene Nayinzira, did not campaign; the fourth candidate, Alivera Mukabaramba, withdrew from the race Sunday, though he was on the ballot.

More than 80 percent of Rwanda's 3.9 million registered voters cast ballots at the 11,350 polling stations across the tiny central African nation of 8 million.

Most of the genocide victims were minority Tutsis, but a number of Hutu political moderates, including the country's first female prime minister, were also killed.

Kagame, who voted in Kigali, said election results will show that Rwanda has made "huge strides" in building national unity and reconciliation.

Casting his ballot, Twagiramungu, a Hutu, called the election "a very positive development and the ... basis for consolidating the democratic process in Rwanda."

"I will applaud the winner," he said.

Twagiramungu was a voice of moderation before the genocide. A former prime minister in the post-genocide government, he went into exile in 1995 after disagreements with Kagame.

Twagiramungu said he decided to stop campaigning in recent days because of the harassment and what he said was an effort by authorities to discredit him with accusations that he tried to stir ethnic tensions to get votes.

Some European Union election observers expressed concern about the system of using fingerprints to mark ballots.

"This method could allow for the identification of voters," said Nelly Maes, a Belgian member of the European Parliament and one of 65 EU observers.

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