Rwandans Vote in Poll That's Likely to Extend Kagame's Rule

(Bloomberg) -- Rwandans began voting Friday in a presidential election that’s all but certain to extend Paul Kagame’s 17-year rule of the East African nation.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 3 p.m., with about 6.8 million people in the country of 12 million registered to vote. Electoral officials say the winner will be announced later Friday, after at least 80 percent of ballots have been counted. Kagame is competing against the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda’s Frank Habineza and Mpayimana Philippe, an independent.

“He is the only candidate with a vision and he will move the country forward,” said Monique Mucyeshimana, who’d just cast her vote for Kagame in the Kicukiro district of the capital, Kigali. “No one can replace him right now -- we want him to stay.”

Kagame, 59, led a rebel army that ended the country’s 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people died, and he’s been credited with turning Rwanda’s economy into one of Africa’s best performers since taking office in 2000. Detractors such as Amnesty International say civil liberties have been cast aside and the vote’s credibility is compromised by a violent crackdown on his opponents that’s created a “climate of fear.”

Kagame, who garnered 93 percent of the vote in a 2010 election, was able to run again after a 2015 referendum backed amending the constitution to remove a two-term limit. If re-elected, he would serve a new, seven-year term, then could seek two further terms of five years each, potentially retaining his post until 2034.

Landlocked Nation

In the Kigali district of Gasabo, Jean Herve Habimana said he’d voted for Habineza because of “his clear foreign policy” and vows to make peace with Rwanda’s neighbors, close informal detention centers and give quick, fair trials to prisoners. The country has fraught relations with Burundi, which has been embroiled in a political crisis since 2015 and accuses Rwanda of meddling -- allegations the government denies.

The tiny landlocked nation’s economy -- which gets donations from countries including the U.S. and U.K. -- has expanded an average of more than 7 percent a year since Kagame took office in 2000, and is expected to grow 6.1 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Its biggest industries and sources of foreign exchange are tea, coffee, tourism and mining.

In its election manifesto, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front pledged to create jobs, partner with private companies to encourage new industry, build about 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles) of roads and increase mineral exploration. Kagame cast his vote accompanied by his family at a station in Kigali’s city center on Friday, the New Times newspaper said on Twitter.