KIGALI – Rwandans voted in a presidential election on Friday expected to extend President Paul Kagame’s 17 years in power, and a senior ruling party official said he saw no reason why the controversial leader should not stand again in seven years time.
Kagame has won international plaudits for presiding over a peaceful and rapid economic recovery in the Central African nation since the 1994 genocide when an estimated 800,000 people Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
READ: Paul Kagame oozes confidence ahead of Rwanda elections
But he has also faced mounting censure for what critics and rights groups say are widespread human rights abuses, a muzzling of independent media and suppression of political opposition.
Some dissidents were killed after they fled abroad, in cases that remain unsolved. The government denies any involvement and the cases appear to have done little to blunt Kagame’s domestic standing among Rwanda’s 12 million citizens.
“Even if I am poor, I voted for Kagame for restoring peace and security,” said 45-year-old farmer Appolinaire Karangwa, who cast his ballot in the capital Kigali.
Kagame, a commander who led Tutsi rebel forces into Rwanda to end the 1994 genocide, banned the use of tribal terms after becoming president.
He won the last election in 2010 with 93 percent of the vote and during this campaign for a further seven-year term, said he expected an outright victory.
Kagame cast his vote in Kigali’s Rugunga polling station but declined to speak to reporters. The deputy head of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party expressed confidence of a win and said he did not see any reasons why Kagame would not stand for re-election in seven years time.
“If the people of Rwanda wishes it like that then what is the problem?” Christophe Bazivamo told reporters in the same polling station.
“If the population wants the president to remain at the time after this coming seven years and the president is okay, I don’t see any inconvenience.”
Kagame’s main opponent, Frank Habineza, voted early on Friday at Kimironko, a polling station in the capital.
He told reporters shortly after voting that his campaign had been hobbled because it could not compete with the machinery of the state.
“All state structures belong to his party. It is not very easy but we are also strong,” he said.
If elected, Habineza has promised to set up a tribunal to retry dissidents whose convictions by Rwandan courts have been criticised as politically motivated.
Another would-be opponent, Diane Rwigara, was disqualified by the election board despite her insistence that she met all the requirements to run.