Local democracy without parties: The Rwandan experience

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LGiU is in Rwanda this week, with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) to get to know our partners the Rwandan Association of Local Government Authorities (RALGA) and to hear about their plans for a local government institute.

We’re hoping it’s the first of many international collaborations, which will allow us to work closely with more people engaged in similar endeavours to us, and to learn about local democracy around the world.

A couple of things become apparent quite quickly when you start to dig into the mechanics of local government in Rwanda. The first thing is the profound difference in structure, compared to the UK. But it is also striking to note the extent to which the experience of the genocide in 1994 has shaped that structure, and the system of representative democracy practiced in the country.

Poor governance is seen as one of the contributing factors, which exacerbated those tragic events. A lot has been done since to approach things in a different way and ensure that this is rectified.

Since 2001 the government has adopted a National Decentralisation Policy has been driving better governance across the country, and ensuring closer engagement between citizens and the state. There is a direct, vertical line of accountability which starts at the Village level, then moves up to the Cell, the Sector, and finally to the District (of which there are 30).

But the difference is apparent in more than just this formal structure. The entire approach to representation is different to ours in the UK.

Political parties are closely associated with the genocide, as some of the foremost groups organising the violence. As such they have no role in local politics and candidates are not allowed to campaign on a party political basis. Members are elected to represent the people as a whole, not to channel the interests of a particular section of society into state decision-making.

These members, elected through open ballot at the village level (constituents stand behind the candidates they want to support) and closed ballot there after, are supplemented by non-territorial representatives. These are chosen by specific stakeholder groups ranging from women, disabled and vulnerable people, the youth, and the private sector. The villages then elect their representatives to the cell, who in turn elect their representative to the sector, and so on.

Parties in the UK have an important function beyond fielding candidates for election. They organise and mobilise action at the local level and provide an important forum for discussion and will formation. Yet without them, participation is high in Rwanda. This is partly due to compulsory voting, but the grassroots structure of local government is designed to lock in citizen-involvement. Meetings take place at village level first and if the issues cannot be solved they move up to the cell, the sector, and then to the district.

The level of engagement in non-electoral decisions and activities also indicates a healthy level of engagement. The Rwanda Governance Board’s 2010 Citizen Report Card indicates that participation ranges from 93% involvement in community works, while the lowest level of participation on the scorecard was engagement in planning and development services, at 34%.

We compare different systems and approaches to politics around the world, not because we think we’ll find the “right” one, but because we try to identify different ingredients and features we can use to reflect on our own.

Jonathan Carr-West and Janet Sillet will be posting their thoughts on Rwanda soon.

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