Rwanda's Kagame in landslide poll win with around 98% of votes

Kigali (AFP) - Rwandan President Paul Kagame sailed to a third term in office with a tally hovering around a whopping 98 percent of votes, partial results showed Saturday.

There had been little doubt that the 59-year-old would return to the helm of the east African nation which he has ruled with an iron fist since the end of the 1994 genocide.

With 80 percent of results counted, Kagame had secured some 5.4 million votes, far more than the 50 percent plus one required for him to win re-election.

"We think that at this level ... it will be the same result, no change after having counted 100 percent (of votes)," said national elections commission chairman Kalisa Mbanda. Full provisional results will come through later Saturday.

The commission estimates 97 percent of 6.9 million voters turned out to cast their ballots.

Of the results tallied, Kagame had 98.66 percent -- a figure which could still shift slightly -- while his two little-known rivals barely made a dent.

Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party -- the only permitted critical opposition party -- won 0.45 percent of votes and independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana scored 0.72.

Around the country Rwandans gathered to hear the results, with some celebrating an early win for Kagame. At a gymnasium in the capital loud music blared and traditional dancers took to the floor to entertain several hundred people.

"We are celebrating the presidential election," said one young man as he danced. "We are celebrating Paul Kagame!" another yelled out next to him.

- Polarising leader -

Kagame has been the de-facto leader of Rwanda since, as a 36-year-old, his rebel army routed extremist Hutu forces who slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people -- mainly minority Tutsis -- and seized Kigali in 1994.

He was appointed president by lawmakers in 2000 before being elected in 2003 with 95 percent of votes and again in 2010 with 93 percent of votes.

The lanky former guerilla fighter is one of Africa's most divisive leaders, with some hailing him as a visionary while critics see a despot aiming to become one of the continent's presidents-for-life.

Kagame is credited with a remarkable turnaround in the shattered nation, which boasts annual economic growth of about seven percent, is safe, clean and does not tolerate corruption. Rwanda also has the highest number of female lawmakers in the world.

However rights groups accuse Kagame of ruling through fear, relying on systematic repression of the opposition, free speech and the media.

Kagame's critics have ended up jailed, forced into exile or assassinated. While few Rwandans would dare to openly speak against him.

- 'A winning team' -

Those who praise him, do so with adulation.

"He freed the country, he stabilised the country. Now we can walk anywhere day or night without problems," Jean Baptiste Rutayisire, a 54-year-old entrepreneur, said at a polling station in Kigali.

"He is an exceptional man. You don't change a winning team."

Like many other voters AFP spoke to, Rutayisire didn't know the names of the other candidates.

Despite facing an unwinnable battle against Kagame in which opponents had only three weeks to campaign, Habineza was upbeat after voting earlier.

"For the first time since 23 years an opposition party has been in the ballot," he told AFP. Previously only independents and parties allied with Kagame fielded candidates.

Kagame's win comes after 98 percent of Rwandans approved a constitutional amendment in a 2015 referendum that granted him the right to run for a third term in office.

Observers condemned the reform, which could potentially see Kagame retain office twice more if re-elected this time and allow him to stay president until 2034.