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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
New era looms in Rwanda
Woman waits to vote
The government promises elections later this year
A huge majority of Rwandans has backed a draft constitution designed to prevent another genocide, electoral officials say.

Some 93% of the electorate voted "Yes" in Monday's referendum, said electoral commission chairman Chrysologue Karangwa. Turnout was 87% of registered voters.

Earlier, President Paul Kagame said that the first presidential elections since 1988 would be held in August and parliamentary polls in September.

About 800,000 ethnic minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in the campaign of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by extremist Hutu authorities in 1994.

The new constitutional framework safeguards against the dominance of a single political party and bans the incitement of ethnic hatred.

But critics say it is geared toward keeping the Rwandan Patriotic Front in power and includes significant powers to curtail civil rights.

Sharing power

"I am not surprised by the high turnout or the big yes vote," said Mr Karangwa.

"The constitution has been prepared by Rwandans themselves."

Prevents one party-dominance
Bans inciting ethnic hatred
Allows parliament to curtail free speech

The draft constitution stipulates that no party can hold more than 50% of the seats in cabinet, even if they secure an absolute majority in parliamentary elections.

It also provides that the president, prime minister and president of the lower house cannot all belong to the same party and includes a new provision outlawing the incitement of ethnic hatred.

But one article in the proposed constitution in effect prohibits political campaigning at grassroots level, restricting it to provincial and national institutions.

Critics charge this is designed to strengthen the RPF's hold on power.

Rights 'threat'

The draft also contains frequent reference to "national unity" as a priority.

Going against national unity was the reason given for the dissolution of the country's second-largest party, the Democratic Republican Movement, by the RPF-led parliament earlier this month.

The Rwandans need some healthy nationalism to pull themselves back together
Helen Tewolde, Eritrean Canadian

Human rights groups, while noting the attention paid to rights within the draft, have also cautioned that it allows parliament to restrict those rights.

"The [draft] constitution confers on the government broad powers to curtail speech or meetings that are deemed divisive," said the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The presidential and parliamentary elections will follow once the draft constitution is approved, the government says.

The BBC's Robert Walker reports for Focus on Africa
"It is history in the making for our country".

Rwanda opposition 'silenced'
08 May 03  |  Africa
Q&A: Justice in Rwanda
18 Jun 02  |  Africa
Country profile: Rwanda
06 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Rwanda
05 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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