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Political coalitions: Good as temporary arrangements, great as permanent fixtures

Rwanda has taken a tool that others use for crisis management and used it to create a permanent framework that prevents political crises from emerging in the first place.

It is an accepted practice in democratic dispensations that when elections cannot produce results that allow one party to form a government, a coalition is necessary, regardless of the number of parties required to form one. This practice is common throughout the world. Strange enough, when it comes to Rwanda, the politics of coalition building is dismissed as some sort of nefarious experiment. All manner of innuendos are thrown at it, and those who engage in it are made to feel as though they belong to some sort of cult.

The opposite is true. Rwanda has taken a tool that others use for crisis management and used it to create a permanent framework that prevents political crises from emerging in the first place.

In other polities, coalitions are built mainly around a convergence of manifestos after elections that do not produce clear winners, but instead create stalemates that can only be broken by different parties coming together to resolve the resulting crises. In some cases, the very process through which efforts are made to resolve crises becomes another crisis in itself. It took nearly two years for Belgium to cobble together a coalition in 2010, nearly a full year for the Netherlands in 2017, and half a year for Germany and Sweden in 2017 and 2018 respectively. In recent years, other countries have taken nearly 100 days to do the same. Closer to home, South Africa had to turn to coalition-building after the ruling ANC was denied a majority by the electorate. It took intense negotiations between the ruling party and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

Regardless of how long it takes to build a coalition, what makes such a step necessary is that the country must move forward after elections fail to produce an outright winner. However, the question must be asked whether some coalitions pursue the accommodation or taming of the political elite as an end in and of itself during negotiations, or whether they keep in mind the wishes and aspirations of the voters. In other words, do they serve the ambitions of the political elite or are they focused on the needs of the people? When the needs of the people are given prominence as the objective of politics, then the need for permanent coalitions becomes apparent and turning to them during election cycles often means relegating this objective to the background. That said, when coalitions become a permanent solution to problems associated with instability caused by electoral stalemates, election cycles become merely a moment to take stock and reflect on what must be done to transform people’s lives. They are not moments for redefining the direction of the country, which would have been already set in the permanent arrangement. Further, permanent coalitions shield the political elite from distractions that, in other polities, prevent them from concentrating on matters that serve to improve people’s lives. This is something that Rwanda achieved a long time ago.

Rwandans understood that if the goal was to embrace politics that serves the people, then a constitutional net that accommodates the elite and focuses them on the needs of the people is superior to that where they are dedicated to political gamesmanship. Indeed, if a convergence of manifestos is possible after elections, a permanent constitutional convergence of a political direction is also possible, and for historically divided societies, preferable. It should not be too complicated for anyone to understand that what you do in response to a crisis can be turned into a permanent constitutional arrangement. That it makes more sense to use elite consensus on governance goals as a permanent constitutional arrangement than to use it for fire-fighting purposes. In this way, a country can define its direction not during electoral cycles or political crises, but in a way that is consensual, stable and sustainable.

Rwanda’s multipartyism most viable

If coalitions are a framework for managing political crises and a means of averting social crises, then Rwanda’s experience with the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi represents a higher threat threshold. This is why Rwanda opted for a permanent constitutional arrangement rather than a band-aid approach. The result has been power and responsibility in the context of a politics of consensus-building rather than winner-takes-all adversarial contestation. The spirit of power-sharing is written large throughout the Constitution, with power-sharing established as the “fundamental principle” (Article 10). The specific clause on how this power is to be shared (Article 62) stipulates that the President of the Republic and the Speaker of Parliament cannot belong to the same political party. Meanwhile, the government is formed according to the proportion of voters each party receives in elections, with the party with the majority of votes not having more than half of the cabinet. This is a reliable way to achieve a lasting political settlement.

It is worth noting that apart from the ethnically oriented political parties that initiated the ideology of genocide and carried out the genocide itself, namely the MDR/MRND (Mouvement démocratique républicain/Mouvement Révolutionnaire pour le Développement) and the CDR (Coalition pour la Défense de la République), all the other political parties that emerged at a time when multiparty politics was re-emerging in Africa continue to participate in the ruling coalition. However, the subtext of the critics of the current political system suggests that the coalition is forming new parties that appear to be the creation of the RPF, when in fact they are the same parties that were formed before the RPF came to power. This situation is significant because, in many African countries, most of the political parties that emerged during the advent of multipartyism have died, morphed into other coalitions or been swallowed up by other coalitions. Indeed, others have been special purpose vehicles, activated in the run-up to elections only to collapse thereafter.

So Rwanda’s multiparty system is arguably one of the most stable in Africa, in the sense that the same parties have been in power for decades, since the early 1990s, while those that emerged after that time and chose to operate outside the coalition have had negligible political success in terms of their growth.

Rallying behind President Kagame

It is inconceivable that an approach that allows a political party to participate in government regardless of whether it wins or loses the election could be labelled “undemocratic”. Nor would a system that leaves room for those who choose to go it alone, including independents who are not allowed to participate in some of the democracies in our neighbourhood. The fact that several parties which elsewhere would be considered “opposition” have continued to rally behind the same candidate is a testament to the qualities and abilities of the individual, the political party he leads, its history and its determination to move the country forward as a collective endeavour.

This suggests that Rwanda’s political arrangements can work in the same way in the future under a leader with similar qualities. It also suggests that Rwanda’s development, the stability it enjoys and its growing influence on the world stage are directly linked to the political choices it has made. There is no way to separate the two: Rwanda’s progress and its political choices, including a deliberately chosen system of governance that continues to produce results and that other polities seek to emulate in all forms, even if they are reluctant to acknowledge it.

Kagame’s much-discussed longevity has enabled the growth of a system which should outlive him, given it has created a generation ready to take it forward into the future after him. The politics of consensus and the resulting coalition have been effective at ensuring elite representation and effective service delivery to the people. It explains the high voter turnout and also the high margin of victory for the incumbent whenever he stands for re-election.

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