Rwandan President Paul Kagame of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) waves to his supporters during a rally in Nyanza, Rwanda, July 14, 2017.

The red, white, and blue flags of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party flutter atop trees and lampposts along the highway leading north from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to the scenic highland town of Musanze. Tricolored banners also don the scaffolded archways that appear at regular intervals along the road and bear a photograph of Rwanda’s lean, bespectacled president, Paul Kagame. It is election season in Rwanda, and the RPF’s campaign materials are everywhere. 

Since his official bid for reelection began three weeks ago, in preparation for the vote on August 4, the president has been visiting all corners of the country, making appearances at RPF rallies. All citizens are expected to attend these events. Musanze’s main street emptied out the day Kagame came to town, as all the shops had closed for his visit and around 200,000 locals had gathered instead at a sports ground several miles up the road, waiting expectantly for him to arrive. 

“It’s a big party,” said Gatete Nyiringabo, a senior researcher at the nonprofit Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) in Kigali. “The campaign is a time of celebration. It’s an opportunity for the president to go around and instill morale in his troops.” On July 14, the first day of campaigning, Kagame claimed that there was no chance he would not win. In Musanze he told the crowd that the election was just a “formality.”

Since winning a constitutional referendum in 2015 that enabled him to run for a third term, Kagame has achieved an unprecedented level of political hegemony in Rwanda. No other leader in Africa enjoys such unrivaled authority. He received a thumping 98 percent of the vote and can now technically stay in power until 2034. Since then, all but two of Rwanda’s 11 registered opposition parties have swung behind the president and actively campaigned for his reelection. Analysts expect Kagame to secure a majority that could top, or at least meet, his record in the country’s two previous elections in 2003 and 2010—95 percent and 93 percent, respectively—and that this can be delivered without fraud or cheating. “He is more popular than he’s ever been,” said Joseph Nkurunziza, executive editor of Kigali’s Never Again Rwanda, which is a postgenocide peace-building organization based in the Rwandan capital.

Kagame’s supreme confidence is reflected in a campaign environment that longtime observers say is more relaxed than in past elections. Local media, although still unwaveringly sycophantic toward the president, have for the first time sent journalists to cover the campaigns of all three candidates, and their reporting has generally shied away from overt hostility toward those in the opposition. “Nobody has told me what to say or what not to say,” said Christopher Kayumba, a professor of journalism at the University of Rwanda who has appeared on several political talk shows in the last few weeks. Meanwhile, Kagame’s notorious “Twitter army”—RPF-directed Twitter-trolls who target foreign journalists critical of the government—is quieter than it once was.

Opposition candidates complain less of restrictions, too. “In the past two elections no one could report what I’m saying,” said Frank Habineza, leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, which is on the ballot for the first time. A local mayor was recently arrested (and later released) for trying to stop people from attending an opposition rally. Habineza added that he fears less for his security now since the government granted him a personal escort. “I think now they are serious about protecting us.”

Indeed, many in Kigali have noticed the new level of tolerance for the official opposition. Diplomats say the National Electoral Commission is more open and transparent than in the 2010 and 2003 elections. A controversial attempt by the National Electoral Commission to gag social media during the campaign period was swiftly dropped. In shops in the capital there are books on sale that would never have been allowed in previous years. Inkotanyi, a documentary about the RPF that includes a discussion of the downing of the former president’s plane in 1994—a genocide-related topic always considered off-limits—was screened at a public library in July.

Unlike in 2010, thus far there have been no terrorist attacks in the capital. No newspapers have been closed, no journalists murdered. One month before the 2010 election, the Democratic Green Party’s deputy leader, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found beheaded beside a river in the country’s south. This came in the same month as the murders of two other government critics. Pro-government journalists called the opposition “cockroaches” and “traitors,” the same words used by the génocidaires as a prelude to the massacres of 1994. 

A more tolerant environment is in part an effort by the Kagame administration to counter the criticisms of foreign governments and international nongovernmental organizations that say Rwanda is sliding into dictatorship and one-man rule. But it is also evidence of the security of Kagame’s own position. In 2010, he had serious worries about potential rivals: Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, one of the most senior members of the RPF and a longtime ally of Kagame’s, fled into exile six months before the election, in the party’s last major split. Meanwhile, a diaspora-funded opposition party, the United Democratic Forces of Rwanda, attempted to stir up ethnic resentment among the country’s Hutu majority against the Tutsi-dominated RPF. Its presidential candidate, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, ended up in prison after being found guilty of threatening state security and “belittling” the 1994 genocide. 

Since then all real opposition, including that of former RFP cadres in exile, has been “totally smashed,” explained Will Jones of Royal Holloway, University of London. (Currently, both registered opposition candidates have had to self-censor just to get on the ballot, and any serious opposition was disqualified beforehand.) Inside the RPF, Kagame presides over functionaries who owe their positions to him alone. Members of the old guard—veterans of the civil war in the early 1990s known as the “historicals”—have almost all left the scene: on July 19, Kagame retired two senior generals, Emmanuel Karenzi Karake and Jack Nziza, leaving himself and James Kabarebe, the minister of defense, as the only top-tier members of government who can claim to have saved Rwandans from genocide. 

Today Kagame is campaigning on a technocratic platform, citing favorable development statistics and production targets rather than security threats and the alleged “genocide ideology” of his opposition. His two opponents, Habineza and Philippe Mpayimana, an independent, stick cautiously to the RPF script. They know they have to play it safe if they want to be allowed to campaign freely without harassment or intimidation. Habineza told me, for example, that Kagame brought “peace and stability and stopped a genocide but didn’t deliver on democracy.” Since he was forced into exile in 2013, he has reinvented the Democratic Green Party as Rwanda’s loyal opposition. “People lost hope,” he said. “So I recruited a new generation of younger people with no baggage. We started as a more revolutionary party, but we had to shed all that.” He no longer talks about the members of his party who have been killed or disappeared and avoids contentious topics, such as the marginalization of Rwanda’s French speakers, an issue he once sought to politicize.

Indeed, real political argument as it is generally understood in the West appears to have largely disappeared in Rwanda. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon: back in 2008, a speaker at a meeting of the Liberal Party declared that “we are not here to oppose President Kagame but to build the nation. Rwanda does not need a European-type opposition.” Many others argue that a culture of consensus can be traced deep into Rwandan history. But most agree that it is more pervasive today than ever. “We don’t discuss politics anymore,” said Nyiringabo of IPAR. “We only discuss technical things.” Taboo topics—ethnicity, corruption, extrajudicial killings, the wealth of the RPF, and the so-called wisdom of Kagame himself—have all been frozen out of the public sphere. “Nobody is interested in politics. They only know there is Kagame,” said René Lambert Muhire, a local journalist, who added that he had never met anyone who admitted to not voting for the RPF.

Still, beneath the surface are signs that not all are resigned to Kagame’s hegemony. Social media buzzes with political dissent not found—or permitted—elsewhere. The 35-year-old businesswoman Diane Rwigara sent ripples through Kigali and the diaspora when she declared her presidential candidacy in May, speaking out loudly about the alleged assassination of her father, a wealthy Tutsi businessman, and criticizing the RPF’s human rights record. Busloads of young Rwandans attended her press conferences, and for weeks her name was trending on Twitter and Facebook. On July 7, the National Electoral Commission barred her from standing on technical grounds. “They are worried about the debate she is introducing,” said Robert Mugabe, a local journalist.

The question is how long the president can continue to reign unchallenged. “The list of people who have fallen out with Kagame is growing by the day,” said one foreign diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous. Several Rwandans I spoke with noted that the president had taken to appearing at rallies in a bulletproof vest. One wondered if the rally at Musanze, which was delayed by a day, had been postponed for security reasons. “Look at the permanent escort, the bulletproof vest, the armored car,” said Susan Thomson, an associate professor at Colgate University. “If Rwanda is so safe and secure—why?”

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  • TOM GARDNER is Ethiopia correspondent for The Economist. He also contributes to The Guardian, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Foreign Policy, and Quartz. Follow him on Twitter @TomGardner18.
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