28 January 2013

Rwanda: Preparations for Parliamentary Elections On Course - NEC

Photo: F. Kanyesigye
Standing in line to vote (file photo).


In an interview with The New Times' James Karuhanga last Friday, Charles Munyaneza, the Executive Secretary of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), shed light on the preparations for the September Parliamentary poll.

TNT: We are supposed to hold parliamentary elections at the end of this year. Where are we in terms of preparations?

Munyaneza: We know that we will have elections sometime this year, perhaps in September. This follows another round of elections that we had in 2008 because our parliament, the lower chamber, has a five-year mandate. Therefore, we are supposed to have fresh elections this year to give chance to our people to elect a new parliament as a democracy. The last exercise took place on 15th September 2008 and that is why we are saying that we are likely to have the same elections in September because that is when the five years will have elapsed.

There are a number of things that we have been doing since.

TNT: You say 'we are likely' to have the elections in September, as if you are not so sure on when exactly.

Munyaneza: We are supposed to have an election calendar, approved by cabinet. That is by law. We have of course made our proposals [election calendar] to cabinet indicating possible dates, which are in September, but the calendar, of course, is not yet approved by cabinet. That is why I am saying we are likely to have... but, most likely, we shall have elections in September because that is in line with the law.

We are expecting the cabinet approve election calendar soon.

TNT: And we do not know when cabinet will approve this?

Munyaneza: We don't know but we expect cabinet to approve it because we know it is one of the priorities of the next cabinet meeting. We already submitted it to the Office of the Prime Minister.

TNT: Where do you stand vis a vis other preparations?

Munyaneza: First of all we thought of looking at the election law. After every other election, we do sit back and say, 'What have we done? How have we performed? What were the challenges involved? What were the weaknesses in the law, and what should be done to improve the next electoral process?' This is what we did after the 2008 parliamentary elections. It is the same process we carried out after the 2010 elections. So, after consultations and analysing our electoral code, we thought some amendments were necessary, to enable us continue improving on how we manage elections. We have made a few proposals to concerned government institutions to look at and see if certain articles in the electoral law can be amended.

TNT: What proposals exactly?

Munyaneza: Briefly, these are some of the proposals. One of them is, you know, according to the current law, Rwandans have been going to the polls which open at 6am. But looking at the experience that we have had, we thought that we should push that time of opening the polls from 6am to 7am because in most parts of the country, we still have a problem of electricity supply, yet, for elections we use government buildings, schools and other places that do not have electricity. We found that maybe 6am could still be too early. Secondly, we did not want the population having to wake up so early going to the poll. Three, it has also been inconveniencing some of our staff who are supposed to be at the polling stations at least one hour before the polls open.

We thought we should have polls starting at 7am but of course, closing time remains 3pm.

In the second proposal, as you know, Rwandans have been using thumb prints while voting. We are proposing that we try also using the pen. Ticking or making a cross alongside the candidate of choice. Some people have been saying that 'look, our population has gone to school, and many people have gone to school and therefore know how to read and write. Why can't we move from using the thumb which some people have been criticising?'

TNT: Which people have been criticizing the use of thumbprints?

Munyaneza: Some people have been saying that this ink that we use is inconveniencing and that they can use the pen instead. We said that what they are saying could be valid, so, let's start by using both.

Both are acceptable. For anybody who wanted to use the thumb, mainly the rural folks who are not conversant with using the pen. And if you are comfortable with the pen you can use it. We would have two options now.

Number three, we are making another proposal of seeing how the Electoral College of people electing women MPs can be increased. In our parliament we have a specific number of women representatives. In the lower chamber of parliament, we have 80 members, in general, but out of these, 24 seats are specifically reserved for women. And these are elected from different provinces including Kigali city.

These elections are not direct but indirect. We use what we call electoral colleges. These are elected people who go ahead and elect these members of parliament.

We have been looking at the numbers of people involved in these elections, electing women MPs and after consultations, we realised that there is need to increase this number and at least make it as more representative as possible.

TNT: Is that the only reason? Making it more representative?

Munyaneza: That is the only reason because representation is one of the major principles of democracy. If you have 53 MPs elected by the general public, I mean those drawn from political parties, then others elected not directly by the population through universal suffrage should also have, at least, a reasonable number of members electing them. That is why we proposed an increase in the number of people making up the Electoral College electing the 24 women representatives.

TNT: Please shed some more light on this Electoral College phenomenon? How does it work?

Munyaneza: The Electoral College is an international concept. Mainly, it refers to that kind of election where you don't have everybody participating in the elections. It is the opposite of universal suffrage where all registered voters aged 18 and above participate. In this case, what happens is that we've got people who are elected ... for instance, when you look at our Electoral College that elects women members of parliament, it is composed of district councils, the national council of women at national level and provincial level, district level, sector level, and those are the people who go and assemble somewhere and elect women in the name of all women population of Rwanda.

That is the number that we want to increase, because when you look at the number of the 30 district councils, and you add on the women in the national council for women, you find that on the whole, generally, the 24 MPs are not elected by more than 300,000 people.

That has always been the case. We want to see how we can increase that number to make sure women members of the national council at sector level, at cell level and at Umudugudu [village] level also participate in voting for their women representatives. It has been stopping at sector level, now we want to move it even to the Umudugudu level.

TNT: Can this be referred to as an attempt at improving the quality of women representatives in parliament?

Munyaneza: Yes. When we talk of increasing the level of representation that is what it implies. We want to broaden the base of people who elect women.

TNT: And the other proposals in the code?

Munyaneza: In voter registration, we are looking at two new things coming up. One, in the current law, voter registration has been compulsory. If you are 18 years and above, it is a legal obligation. We want to change that.

TNT: Why?

Munyaneza: We believe that it is better to educate people to exercise their civil right. Out of their conviction and out of how they have been sensitised and on the values they attach to go and cast their vote, other than going to vote because the law is forcing them to go and vote. That is different from what is in the law because registering and casting your vote are two different things.

You can register but you may not go and vote. So, we thought that we need to harmonise these two. Voting is not compulsory, while registration is compulsory. We thought we need to emphasise on civic education, informing the people on the value of their vote, and educate them to go and cast their votes but also to register, instead of saying, 'if you don't do this, the law will punish you,' because this is a civil responsibility.

In another area of voter registration, it has been mandatory that when you are registering, you go to our registration centres physically. You take your national identity card and present yourself, physically. We thought that with developments in technology, we should also bring in the option of electronic voting if you cannot go to the registration centres physically because, maybe you have got some problem which does not allow you to go, then you can use your computer, or your mobile phone and register online and you can also use the same to check your status.

And this will help especially our people in the Diaspora because we have been having problems registering Rwandans in the Diaspora because they've been required to go physically to our embassies yet Rwanda has got very few embassies in relation to where we have Rwandans staying. We have been having very few registering not because they don't want but due to accessibility to our embassies.

We want to introduce this so that we give and increase that chance to our people in the Diaspora, especially since we know that they have got these facilities to register. This is a new thing that we think will improve on our registration process.

TNT: Let me take you back to element one in the voter registration proposal which involves sensitising voters countrywide. We are in January yet cabinet has not approved the calendar...

Munyaneza: We are not just starting this. It is a continuous process of a civic education programme. Even between elections, we have been doing it. We don't stop and wait for an election to come.

TNT: Is there a fifth proposal in the new code?

Munyaneza: Yes. Maybe the last one. And it is about election observers. In our current law, there is a clause that says that election observers 'may' apply to be accredited to observe elections, whether national or international observers. But this article has not been sufficient in terms of pointing out clearly what are the rights and responsibilities of election observers. So this is the new thing coming in.

We shall be accrediting observers but the new recommendations will be clearer on the rights of observers. If you come to observe an election, what are you entitled to? What are your responsibilities? How will you conduct yourself?

And, finally, in the law, we have election related crimes and penalties. For example, if you forcefully enter a polling station, armed, or not, or if you try to rig elections, the current law has been saying that these are the crimes and penalties involved but in the proposal, these were taken out because they appear in the penal code. It is just to harmonise the existing legal instruments. There are some other proposals but these are the most important ones.

TNT: Are these proposals borrowed from best practices elsewhere, and if so, from where?

Munyaneza: Basically it is from ourselves, because we are managers of elections. We know how to manage elections, we have been evaluating ourselves. When we conduct elections, we know where we are weak, and weakness can be attributed to how we do it or to the weaknesses in the law itself. But, in addition, we have been getting some positive recommendations from election observers.

There are some election observers who have been objective on certain things and we have taken some of their objective recommendations.

Thirdly, we are not the only countrys that hold and manage elections. When we go to the region, for instance, we see how elections are managed, for example, in the East African Community and other African countries. We see and compare conditions with ours. There are best practices that we have been borrowing because elections are an international phenomenon. So, it is born out of experience, experience from other countries and also from what the population has been saying because we serve the people. Our clients, who are the population, have also been telling us that 'please improve here, please improve there.' And this is what we have been trying to do.

We hope that some of these proposals, if not all, will be taken in. They have been looked at by the cabinet and cabinet has submitted them to parliament which will also look at their validity.

TNT: Apparently, you are not able to give me specifics timeline ...

Munyaneza: No. But of course we talk with parliament and whoever else is involved with this. And our hope is that we should have these recommendations by end February, and if it is too late, it shouldn't go beyond March, just to give us time to educate the people on these few things. I am saying they are few because the rest of the law remains intact apart from these few changes.

TNT: How many voters participated in the previous election, and how many are projected now?

Munyaneza: The last parliamentary poll, it was 4,769,228 and right now, we have around 6.2 million registered voters and, between now and September, because we are going to update this voters register, in March and July, we do expect to have 6.3 million voters and we are planning based on that.

TNT: And logistics, especially the budget? How prepared are you? Where is the money coming from?

Munyaneza: We don't have any big problem with logistics because one of the strategies we have been pursuing is preserving the election material we've been using. For instance, we are not going to buy new ballot boxes. The ones we used in 2008 are the ones we are going to use again. What we are going to buy is just a few things like ink and we are already in the process of procuring these materials.

The tenders are out and we think that before the end of May, all election material will be in place. Now, for money, I know this is always critical in terms of election management; we've also been deliberately trying to reduce on the money we spend.

TNT: Is it because of the situation the country is facing now, with aid freeze and what have you?

Munyaneza: No. In fact it hasn't just come. It has been a long time plan. We have been reducing and cutting [expenditure], for instance, on our dependence on foreign funding of elections. For instance, in 2003, we were depending on donors for about 38 percent. In other words, in our national budget, it was not more than 52 percent. We have been gradually cutting that. Now, we stand in a position whereby we shall not need any foreign funding for elections.

We have been trying to put in place certain mechanisms. For instance, we have volunteers, we preserve our own materials, and we have our own printing facility here.

Of course we shall not chase or push away any well-wishers, if they come, but we shall not go out looking for them [donors].

TNT: So, how much do you have as budget?

Munyaneza: We are still negotiating. Of course we are yet to discuss it with the Ministry of Finance, but we are not ready to go beyond what we used in 2008.

TNT: How much was used in 2008?

Munyaneza: We used around eight billion Rwandan francs. And of course, if we used eight billion in 2008, you would expect us to use more, because the number of voters has increased. But because of the measures we put in place, we cannot go beyond this [Rwf8 billion].

TNT: Tentatively, when do the observers arrive? When do they apply?

Munyaneza: We are waiting for the election calendar to be approved but according to what is there [draft], we might start welcoming them or registering in June or July, for those who will be long term observers.

TNT: And the candidates?

Munyaneza: It is also to be determined by the law and the calendar but if we are to have elections in September, then we are likely to have these candidates in late July or early August because they have to have at least 20 days of campaigns before elections.

You can imagine then when we are supposed to have the process of nominations, verification of files, and so forth. So, it should be around early August.

TNT: What profile is this candidate required to have?

Munyaneza: The most important thing is that they should be Rwandans. Secondly, they must have at least 21 years of age. Third, they must not have been convicted at any point in time, in the courts of law, and sentenced for a period exceeding six months. Basically, that's that. I know people have been asking about, 'how about education?' but no, there is no education requirement for our members of parliament. You can go to parliament as long as you can read and write, and talk.

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