KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda began counting votes on Friday in a presidential election widely expected to hand incumbent Paul Kagame a third term in office, extending his 17 years in power.
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.
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.
Turnout was expected to top 90 percent in the East African country of 12 million citizens once full details emerged, Rwanda’s electoral board said, in elections that fielded only a single opposition candidate, Frank Habineza, and an independent.
“Generally the process went well. The process was peaceful and calm,” Charles Munyaneza, the board’s executive secretary, told Reuters after polls closed at 3 pm (1400 GMT). Provisional results were expected around 10 pm (2100 GMT).
Under Kagame’s rule, 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 Rwandans.
“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 earlier on Friday 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.”
Habineza, Kagame’s main opponent, voted early on Friday at Kimironko, a polling station in the capital.
He told reporters 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.
Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Aaron Maasho