Rwanda votes: A novel exercise in democracy

_48659282_jex_774126_de31-1From Monday 16, September to Wednesday 18,September  5,953,531 eligible voters will have the opportunity to decide the composition of the House of Deputies, the Parliament’s lower chamber. The political parties contesting the 53 seats that will be directly chosen by universal suffrage on Monday include the Liberal Party (PL), the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Parti du Progrès et la Concorde (PPC), Centrist Democratic Party (PDC), PS-Imberakuri and the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) coalition (which include the tiny Ideal Democratic Party and Socialist Party- PSR). Elections for the 24 women’s seats, 2 youth seats and 1 disabled seats will take place on September 18.

All very normal….

What sets these elections apart is the manner in which the members of parliament are voted. Inthumb most democracies, members of parliament are voted by the constituents. Each constituency is guaranteed a seat in parliament and the area politicians are expected to convince the voters in that area to cast their ballots for them.  In Rwanda it is done very differently.

First of all, there are no individual constituencies. Members of parliament are chosen at the provincial level. Secondly, Rwandans don’t vote for specific candidates; rather they vote for specific parties. How this works is that each party has a long list of candidates that it presents to the public; the candidates at the top of each list are the party’s best and brightest and those lower down the list less so. After the votes are cast, each party sends to parliament a number of those on the list in direct proportion to the percentages garnered during the election. So, if the RPF ruling party wins 50% of the national vote, it will get to choose the top 25 or so candidates on its list of potential members of parliament.

This system aims to ensure that MP’s take their cues from a national audience and not a local one. You will often hear them say that this system makes them  represent all Rwandans and not just Rwandans from a specific area or constituency.  That is what is supposed to happen in theory. However, this system is still debated by many, including this writer.

One of the major qualms I have with this system is its lack of accountability. In other countries, if you don’t like the manner in which an MP is representing you, you can vote him or her out of office. They have the responsibility to represent the constituency’s interests first and foremost. In Rwanda’s system however, one finds that MP’s represents the party’s interests first and the people last. A few months ago, MP’s passed an amendment in the labour law that reduced fully paid maternity leave from three months to six weeks. Would this law have passed if MP’s had to face the wrath of an enraged electorate?  Perhaps. But there would have been a lot more public debate about it. And this debate would have been led by wary MP’s, unwilling to go against public opinion.

While public opinion and populism in the African continent sometimes leads to discriminatory laws, such as those criminalizing homosexuality (happily Rwanda’s MP’s chose not to criminalize it, despite the country’s conservative nature), there is still a place for it in our political process. Rwanda faces the challenge attempting to find this balance.


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