Rwanda votes in parliamentary elections

KIGALI - Rwandans were voting Monday in parliamentary polls seen as a shoo-in for President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the party that has held sway over the central African state since ending the genocide 20 years ago.

Voters cast ballots in polling booths that in the capital were draped in the sky blue, green and yellow of the Rwandan flag, with some playing music .

Some six million people are eligible to cast their ballots before polling stations close in mid-afternoon.

Cars with loudspeakers cruised the pristine streets of the capital, neatly lined with palm trees, reminding voters not to forget their ID cards.

At the school where President Paul Kagame cast his vote security was tight, with a sniffer dog on hand to inspect bags and security checks for voters going through a metal-detector gate set up specially for the occasion.

Asked whether he expects the RPF to win by a big margin, Kagame said: "I guess so. I don't see any reason why the RPF should not win with a big margin."

Questioned about accusations of political repression in Rwanda, Kagame retorted: "Is that what you see around you in the voting? You have eyes. Use them to see what is happening and you'll get the answer."

Turnout is likely to be robust despite a low-key campaign and the absence of any serious opposition to the RPF, as local authorities encourage the population to turn out to vote.

"I'm 20, it's the first time I can vote so it's important," said Sandrine, a mobile phone seller who was among the first to vote at a polling station in the capital Kigali.

The only incident to upset the pre-vote atmosphere was the death of two people in grenade explosion over the weekend in a market in Kigali, a city reputed to be among Africa's safest.

There was no claim of responsibility, but the Rwandan government blamed dissidents linked to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group which operates across the border in Democratic Republic of Congo.

The FDLR includes remnants of Hutu extremist militia who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda but who were pushed out by Kagame's RPF, at the time a rebel army.

For the parliamentary polls, the RPF is leading a coalition that includes four smaller parties.

The tiny opposition or independent parties - including the Liberals, Social Democrats and the PS-Imberakuri - will be trying to scrape a handful of the seats by winning at least five percent of the popular vote, but are seen as having little chance of denting the RPF's dominance.

Out of the 80 seats in parliament, 53 are directly elected and 27 are reserved for women, the youth and handicapped - who are indirectly appointed by local and national councils on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This configuration has ensured that Rwanda has the only parliament in the world where women are in a majority - 56.3 percent after the last elections.

Kagame's RPF currently holds 42 out of the 53 directly elected seats, while deputies holding the indirectly elected seats, although in principle non-partisan, have been supportive of the majority.

With Rwanda's economy one of the continent's fastest growing, the government is keen to show off the elections as a badge of national unity and democratic health.

The small nation was left in ruins by the genocide of 1994, in which close to a million people, mostly from the ethnic Tutsi minority, were butchered by Hutu extremists before RPF rebels managed to take control of the country.

Rwanda has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades, with robust economic growth and the strangling of corruption credited to the strong rule of Kagame.

Transparency International ranks Rwanda as the least corrupt country in Africa, while the World Bank's ease of doing business index for 2013 ranked Rwanda 52nd out of 185 countries, and third best in sub-Saharan Africa - after Mauritius and South Africa.

But critics say the economic growth and security have come at the expense of freedom of expression.