Rwandan president expected to win election handily; critics decry crackdown on opposition

KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — President Paul Kagame is expected to handily win Monday's vote after overseeing years of economic and social development in Rwanda despite a recent string of attacks on political opponents that critics have decried as heavy-handed oppression.

The presidential election is only the second since Rwanda's 1994 genocide when at least half a million people were slaughtered.

The chairman of Rwandan's electoral commission, Chrysologue Karangwa, said voting was going "smoothly" across the country and that polling stations were seeing a high turnout. Voters began heading to polling stations well before they officially opened at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) Monday.

The run-up to the campaign has been marred by a series of attacks on outspoken critics of Kagame's government, and other opposition politicians say they've been barred from participating.

Human rights groups have accused Kagame's government of cracking down on any opposition before the vote, while the government-appointed media council has clamped down on independent newspapers publishing dissenting views.

Kagame cast his vote along with his wife at a school in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. Kagame said he had no reason to believe that he shouldn't win, and he cast aside criticism of a crackdown.

"I see no problems, but there are some people who choose to see problems where there are not," Kagame said. "They talk about fear, they talk about all sorts of things but they are not even patient enough to wait for Rwandans to speak."

Ignace Habumugisha, who cast his vote in a soccer field in the capital's largest Nyarimbo district, said he voted for Kagame because of his track record.

"Kagame has done a lot for the country like development and reconciliation. There has been a lot of changes in Rwanda," Habumugisha said after casting his vote. "Everything was destroyed in the country. He has rebuilt the country."

Many have hailed Rwanda's positive transformation since the genocide that left at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

Kagame's three challengers are former partners in a coalition government formed soon after the genocide who have posed no real political threat. Their electoral platforms are also similar to Kagame's.

During the three-week campaign period, Kagame tried to shed his image as a stiff leader, joining in dances and clapping along as crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands sang and danced at his daily rallies across the tiny nation of 10 million people.

Those rallies were part of a carefully choreographed campaign, which included a local pop group playing what has become the president's re-election theme song, "Tora Kagame," or Vote Kagame in Kinyarwanda, and live updates on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

If elected, Kagame will earn another seven-year term. He was elected president by parliament in 2000 and then by voters in 2003.