KIGALI (Reuters) - Hundreds of opposition supporters packed a hall in the Rwandan capital on Friday saying they were determined to register their party after what the group has said was years of obstruction by the government of President Paul Kagame.
Kagame has won international praise for rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, but critics accuse him of being authoritarian and trampling on political freedoms, charges he rejects.
Members of the Democratic Green movement gathered for their “founding conference” - a key part of the formal registration process - saying they were hoping to run in parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
“We are keeping positive. We hope we will be successful and we will have a party that is registered soon,” said Democratic Green president Frank Habineza said before the meeting began.
Once registered, the Democratic Greens would become one of several parties operating in Rwanda. But most of the existing movements are allied to Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Critics say at least one party that began as an opposition group has since been “hijacked” by pro-government elements who now dominate it.
Analysts said the Friday gathering, staged to demonstrate the group had at least 200 backers spread across the country, was a modest step forward for pluralism but did not mark a major opening of the political space.
A founding congress by the party in October 2009 was broken up by violence, which the opposition said was caused by people not known to them. Until now, Habineza said officials had barred bids for another meeting, saying they cited security reasons.
Habineza had sought to run in the 2010 presidential election, which Kagame won with a huge majority, but could not because of setbacks in trying to establish his party.
The orderly gathering in Kigali was attended by foreign diplomats and government officials who checked names of signatories to founding documents.
No one was immediately available to comment on Friday’s meeting from the government.
Shyaka Anastase, chief executive officer of the Rwanda Governance Board, a state agency responsible for promoting good governance, said any political body was free to register.
“We have seen them struggling and having internal problems and we will be relieved if they overcome these problems,” he said. “We encourage them to fulfill the requirements for registration and we will be happy to see them registered.”
Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said even a registered party might struggle to operate freely and said the timing gave the Democratic Green party little opportunity to prepare for the upcoming vote.
“It’s a positive step but I think it would be premature to jump to any conclusions about political space being opened up in Rwanda,” she said of the founding congress.
“Real democratic opposition parties that criticize the government are simply not allowed to function in Rwanda.”
Officials dismiss accusations of meddling.
Victoire Ingabire, regarded as Rwanda’s main opposition figure and head of the unregistered FDU-Inkingi party, was also unable to stand in the 2010 presidential vote after being accused of the crimes linked to genocide denial.
Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Edmund Blair and Andrew Heavens