Rwanda’s big democratic experiment

Country revamped its political systems after the 1994 genocide. While not perfect, the changes are worth watching.

Democracy is a funny thing. It is a word that seems straightforward enough – “government of the people, for the people, by the people” in Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase – but it is also a word has been co-opted and distorted by all manner of governments, regimes and autocrats to justify systems that are anything but democratic.

Over three days this week, the tiny, bucolic, landlocked Rwanda went to the polls in an election that is part of an ongoing experiment in a form of democracy unlike any other in Africa.

It is a unique system engineered to avoid the kind of ethnically polarized governments that one Rwandan political commentator sneeringly called “ethnocracies”. And, like so many aspects of this country, to understand it you need to dig back into the horrors of the 1994 genocide.

Rwanda’s constitution emerged, phoenix-like, after the bloodletting that seemed to be a savage interpretation of what another American author James Boval once wrote: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”

Of course, no mainstream African political party openly admits to using tribal loyalty as a way of winning votes, but too often the systems of government encourage and reward politicians who exploit ethnic divisions in do-or-die struggles for power.

Kenya knows this. It rebuilt its constitution in the wake of the bloody 2007-08 elections that nearly burned the country to the ground.

Nigeria understands tribal politics too. And Zimbabwe. And a host of other countries who’ve all struggled to put the politics of ethnicity behind them.

‘Consensual politics’

So in redesigning its government, Rwanda’s constitutional draftsmen carefully pulled apart all the traditional systems that encouraged “adversarial politics”, and replaced them with ideas aimed at creating “consensual politics”.

They binned the idea of local constituencies, and replaced it with a single national constituency all Rwanda’s parliamentarians represent the entire country.

That means there are no local contests for power, no opportunities for politicians to mobilise ethnic loyalties in exchange for votes.

And instead of choosing among individual candidates, voters simply put a tick beside their preferred party.

The more votes any one party gets, the more of its nominees cross the threshold into parliament.

The system of proportional representation means it is much easier for minor parties to get elected, and makes it a contest between political philosophies rather than individual personalities.

The electoral cycles for each layer of government are quite deliberately out of sync.

Parliament goes to the polls every five years the presidency is up for election every seven years.

The term of a senator is eight years, and they are replaced in a complicated system that ensures the Senate is never completely dissolved.

Not-perfect system

It all means Rwanda never has to go through a winner-takes-all election. And just to ensure no party dominates government, the speaker of the house must be from a different party to the president and no party can occupy more than 50 percent of the cabinet positions.

The system is not perfect. To critics of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, the idea of “consensus politics” is another way of saying “we won’t tolerate anyone who disagrees with us”.

And because the RPF is so dominant, it has access to vastly more resources than any of its smaller rivals.

It will always be able to outspend the minor parties in national campaigns.

There is also a more sinister side to Rwandan politics.

Several parties and human rights groups complain that the government uses laws prohibiting “genocide ideology” as a way of locking up its critics, and there have been disturbing reports of dissident politicians and journalists being beaten, imprisoned or even murdered.

But the fundamental point remains: Rwanda has taken a hard look at what divides African countries, and come up with ideas designed to unite.

The experiment is only in its 10th year, and things could still go horribly wrong. But it is an experiment worth watching.