KIGALI, Rwanda – President Paul Kagame called Rwanda's election democratic and predicted victory after years of economic growth, though critics said political repression and attacks in the run-up to Monday's vote ensured he faced no real competition.
The presidential election is only the second since Rwanda's 1994 genocide when at least half a million people were slaughtered. Since then, Kagame has guided the country through a period of mostly peaceful prosperity, though the government cracks down harshly on dissent.
The chairman of Rwandan's electoral commission, Chrysologue Karangwa, said voting went smoothly across the country and that polling stations saw a high turnout. Lines snaked from polling stations even before they opened. Streets were mostly empty as people observed a national holiday, and polls closed mid-afternoon.
A rally was scheduled in the capital, Kigali, for Monday evening, when the election results were expected to be announced.
The run-up to the campaign was marred by a series of attacks on outspoken critics of Kagame's government, and other opposition politicians say they've been barred from participating. Much of the sharpest criticism has come from ethnic Hutus against Kagame's Tutsi-led government.
The government-appointed media council has clamped down on independent newspapers publishing dissenting views. On the ballot box Kagame faces three opponents, but observers say the three are cosmetic stand-in candidates.
"What's important to remember is that none of the opposition parties have been able to present candidates, so voters don't actually have much of a choice," said Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Kagame cast his vote along with his wife at a school in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, where he cast aside criticism of a crackdown.
"I see no problems, but there are some people who choose to see problems where there are not," Kagame said. "They talk about fear, they talk about all sorts of things but they are not even patient enough to wait for Rwandans to speak."
Ignace Habumugisha, who cast his vote in a soccer field in the capital's largest Nyarimbo district, said he voted for Kagame because of his track record.
"Kagame has done a lot for the country like development and reconciliation. There has been a lot of changes in Rwanda," Habumugisha said after casting his vote. "Everything was destroyed in the country. He has rebuilt the country."
Many have hailed Rwanda's positive transformation since the genocide that left at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Kagame's three challengers are former partners in a coalition government formed soon after the genocide who have posed no real political threat. Their electoral platforms are also similar to Kagame's.
The pre-election period was marred by suspicious attacks, all of which the Rwandan government denied involvement in.
The vice president of an opposition party that couldn't get registered was killed in mid-July. In June, former army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa was shot and wounded outside his home in South Africa. Five days after the shooting in South Africa, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist at a critical newspaper in the capital, was shot dead outside his home in Kigali hours after publishing an online article linking Rwandan intelligence to the attack.
The most prominent opposition politician, Victoire Ingabire, was arrested earlier this year and charged with genocide ideology. She was not allowed to run for president.
"The stability in our country is based on repression," Ingabire, a Hutu, said in an interview before the election.
If Kagame fails to deliver on his promise to start democratizing the country by the next round of parliamentary elections in 2013, the country could face a return to its bloody past, Ingabire said.
"If Kagame stays there and does not change, then Rwanda will go into chaos," Ingabire said. "We have to change and Kagame has to change."
Tertsakian, who was kicked out of Rwanda earlier this year for what the government said was a falsified visa application, an accusation she denies, said a lot of discontent and resentment lies underneath the surface in Rwanda.
"Whether it's going to come to a boil now or soon or later is an open question. I don't think there would be an explosion of violence in the very near future, but it's difficult to predict," she said. "What is striking is that discontent increasingly cuts across ethnic lines."
Kagame has tried to downplay the role of ethnicity in post-genocide Rwanda. People in the country rarely refer to themselves as Hutu or Tutsi and can face charges for speaking publicly about ethnicity.
During the three-week campaign period, Kagame tried to shed his image as a stiff leader, joining in dances and clapping along as crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands sang and danced at his daily rallies across the tiny nation of 10 million people. Live updates were posted on social Internet sites like Twitter and Facebook.
If elected, Kagame will earn another seven-year term. He was elected president by parliament in 2000 and then by voters in 2003.
Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.