(New York) - Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans voted for local officials in nationwide balloting on March 6, but many had no meaningful choice at the polls, Human Rights Watch said today. About 45 percent of the contests had only a single candidate and more than one hundred of the 4,650 races had no candidate at all, according to Rwandan government statistics.

"This election has been flawed from the beginning, and those flaws far outweigh the few election-day irregularities that have been reported," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "Contests with a single contender are no contests at all."

In some sectors where more than one candidate ran, the balloting was expected to confirm choices that had been dictated by higher authorities.

The tightly-organized process continued yesterday, March 8, with a portion of those just elected joining others chosen two years ago to select a mayor and executive council for each of the country's 106 districts.

More than 90 percent of people eligible to vote were registered to do so, and large numbers did turn out at the polls. However, some voters told Human Rights Watch they had done so only because they feared fine or other punishment if they did not. An elderly woman in a rural area told Human Rights Watch she thought her ballot meant nothing, but that she understood that it was obligatory to vote. Other voters said the indirect system of voting for mayor with disproportionate weight given to the votes of officials chosen two years ago reduced the importance of their voices. Some remembered elections in the 1960s, when voters directly elected the heads of the districts, then called communes.

In some areas where officials found themselves short on candidates, they pressured citizens to present themselves. Several who were government employees told Human Rights Watch they had agreed to stand for the part-time community posts because they feared losing their jobs if they did not.

Authorities reportedly discouraged some potential candidates whom they found undesirable. One withdrew from the race after being visited by soldiers; another, after having received telephone threats of arrest. Three other would-be candidates were reportedly arrested, one in the east and two in the center of the country.

Political parties were barred from any electoral activity, but in some areas leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the dominant party in the government, made known their preference for a given candidate. Campaigning was limited to a fifteen-day period and could take place only under conditions set by the electoral commission. In some areas, candidates spoke to the public only once and very briefly. Anyone who violated the rules, such as by mentioning affiliation with a political party, was liable to stiff fines and imprisonment for three to five years.

Since 1994 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as well as the other parties in the multi-party government have agreed to engage in no political activities at the local level during the current period of transition to a new national government. But in fact, the RPF has been actively - sometimes aggressively - recruiting members and otherwise organizing in many communities. A high-ranking RPF official admitted enrolling many new members in advance of the elections. He told Human Rights Watch that the process of enrollment had been initiated by the new members rather than by the party itself, and that to have refused their request to join would have violated their right to political expression. Commenting on this position, Takirambudde said, "It is unfortunate that Rwandans who might have wished to join other parties have not been allowed the same freedom."

In the northwestern province of Gisenyi, there were two reports of minor violence. In one place a member of the Local Defense Force, a government-organized militia, beat voters waiting in line and one woman had to be hospitalized. In other cases, members of the Local Defense Force closely observed voters as they cast their ballots in booths that were partially open to public gaze. At several polling stations, officials failed to observe regulations meant to prevent fraud, such as totaling ballots at the end of the voting.

Both local and foreign observers were invited to monitor the balloting, but their credentials were distributed only late on the evening before the election, making it impossible for them to observe any pre-election activities, such as registration and campaigning, and making it difficult for some to reach distant polling stations in time for the start of the vote the next day.