Rwandan President Paul Kagame said Tuesday he was confident of re-election on August 9 as he kicked off a campaign already tarnished by a string of political assassinations and arrests.
The 52-year-old leader, who has ruled Rwanda since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the 1994 genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority against his Tutsi minority, insisted the country was free to choose.
"Rwandan voters have the freedom to decide. But we have to seek their support and explain how we deserve their support," Kagame told reporters in Kigali on the first day of the three-week official campaign.
But with the main opposition parties already effectively out of the running, few people, including Kagame himself, appeared to have any doubt on the outcome of the vote.
"I'm very confident that Rwandans will choose to work with RPF but I don't take anything for granted," Kagame said.
Some 30,000 people flooded into Kigali's national stadium later Tuesday to support Kagame, chanting slogans such as "Vote for Kagame, the youth's friend" or "Voting for the RPF is voting for unity, democracy and development".
The RPF is planning to spend two million dollars on the campaign, all from "voluntary contributions", according to Kagame's campaign coordinator Christophe Bazivamo.
Challenging Kagame are Deputy Speaker Jean-Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, running for the Social Democratic Party, as well as the Liberal Party's Prosper Higiro and the Party of Progress and Concord's Alvera Mukabaramba.
Those three movements supported Kagame during the 2003 presidential election and are described by other parties as the RPF's "political satellites", token opposition used to maintain a facade of pluralism.
The Unified Democratic Forces has not been officially registered by the authorities and its leader, Victoire Ingabire, has faced legal action since April after being accused of negating the genocide and abetting terrorism.
The Social Party (Imberakuri) faces similar problems and its leader Bernard Ntaganda has been behind bars since June 24.
In another development, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka -- vice chairman of the unregistered opposition Democratic Green Party -- was found dead, nearly decapitated, on July 14.
"She associated herself with those who carried out the genocide," Kagame said Tuesday to justify sidelining Ingabire.
Several senior army officers have been arrested in recent months and one general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, narrowly survived an assassination attempt in exile in South Africa.
An opposition journalist who claimed to have uncovered the regime's responsibility in the attempted murder was shot dead days later.
In a country known for almost non-existent crime, Kagame insisted Tuesday the latest murders were not politically motivated.
"There is nothing to gain from that... Why would the government be that stupid? I think there is something terribly wrong. People jump to conclusions without evidence," he said.
Rights groups have repeatedly accused Rwanda of restricting political and press freedom ahead of the election.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "expressed his concerns regarding the recent incidents which have caused political tensions" and demanded a full investigation into the death of the journalist and Rwisereka's murder.
Ban's statement came last week in Madrid, where Kagame was invited to talk on the status of the Millennium Development Goals.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero opted out of a meeting with Kagame at the last minute following protests from some political parties over the Rwandan president's role in the genocide