Burundi voted — but will the political situation change?

A person votes in Burundi elections in the northern province of Kirundo, Burundi. Photo by Brice Blondelvia Flickr,CC BY-NC 2.0.

Burundians voted on May 20 in the first round of presidential, deputy, and councilor elections — with most attention on the president.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, with the ruling Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party, returned for a controversialthird term in 2015. But after 15 years in power, he did not run again.

Throughout the entire election process, ongoing concerns over security continue to loom.

Several violent incidentswere reported on election day. A member of the opposition party National Freedom Congress (CNL) was found deadin Rumonge district, and various CNL polling station monitors were arrested.

Burundi has registered 5.1 million votersbut citizens abroad were unable to vote. Refugees were also not able to vote due to a lack of identification. According to the United Nations, there are 330,000 registeredrefugees plus 87,000 otherwise recorded in the region.

RFI reported a high turnoutand Iwacu newspaper showedlong queuesto vote earlyin the morning.

There were some reports of voter registrationirregularitiesand the withholdingof voter cards.

However, outgoing President Nkurunziza,and Évariste Ndayishimiye, presented as Nkurunziza's “heir,” said that the elections went well.

Partial resultsfrom12 percent of the districtswere unexpectedly announcedon May 21, giving around 80 percent of the votes to Ndayishimiye.

Opposition CNL party candidate Agathon Rwasa rejected these initial results as “fanciful,” saying there was proof of fraud, includingballot-box stuffing, and that he would appeal. Contested resultscould further deepen tensions.

Many expect ruling party candidate Ndayishimiye to become president in an even more powerfulposition after the 2018 constitutional changes— with a seven-year term.

The resultsare expectedwithin a week.

Socialmediawasblockedearly on May 20 until the followingevening. With the restrictivemedia environmentand a lack of independent electoral observers, Reporters Without Borders criticizedelections as occurring “behindclosed doors”:

Alert: Social media and messaging apps disrupted in #Burundion election day; real-time network data show Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp unavailable via leading network operators; incident ongoing


— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) May 20, 2020

Tense build-up

The government highlighted its financingof these elections independent of aid. However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) describedthe “voluntary” public collection of funds as a “confiscatory and arbitrarily administered system of forced contributions.”

Some opponents questionedthe Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), criticizing the over-representation of ruling party supporters among polling station monitors, and not publishingthe list of registered voters. The Council for the Defense of Democracy party (CNDD) withdrewfrom elections, criticizing irregularities and closedpolitical space.

Ahead of elections, Iwacu newspaper lamentedpoliticized violence, while Burundi Human Rights Initiative describeda “facade” of peace, with systematic repression, uninvestigated deaths andinternational “inertia.”

Ruling party candidate Ndayishimiye saidthe elections would be secure, speaking after clashes between security forces and gunmen in February. Despite this narrative of calm, though, the UN Commission of Inquiry warnedof a “spiral of violence.”

Days before the election, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ruling government kicked out World Health Organization country representatives.

Human Rights Watch wrote:

As the government kicks out the @WHOteam and elections approach, a perfect storm is brewing in #Burundi. New dispatch for @hrwhttps://t.co/FBdSa3vsSK

— Lewis Mudge (@LewisMudge) May 14, 2020

Despite a few reported casesof COVID-19, there are concernsover limitedmeasures and underreporting. During campaigning, distancingmeasures and the topic itself was reportedlyforgotten.

East African Community memberswere called on as election observers. However, on May 8, officials required a 14-day quarantine on arrival, due to COVID-19, making it unworkable. CENI saidthere were some observers from various embassies.


CENI initially rejectedfour out of the ten submissionsfor presidential candidates. On appeal, ex-president Domitien Ndayizeye was acceptedas the seventh candidate with the Kira-Burundi party.

While there are seven candidatesand numerousparties, Iwacu observed the ruling CNDD-FDD and opposition CNL parties remain the political centers of gravity.

Several smaller parties, some effectively ruling party CNDD-FDD “satellites,” supported their candidates.

The ICG said the final result was not completelycertain, given the successful campaign of opposition CNL candidate Agathon Rwasa.

ICG also noted that CNDD-FDD candidate Ndayishimiye has to manage party factions and Nkurunziza’s lasting influence.

Kira-Burundiparty and UPRONAwith candidate Gaston Sindimwo (current first vice-president), suffered splits. Opponentsin exile boycotted this time, but they are also weakened by divisionsand the failure of mediated dialogue.

Analyst Thierry Vircoulon arguedthat the ruling party benefits from the existence of opposition voices but only to give an appearance of democracy. Change appears unlikely with the new candidate because the “council of generals” within the ruling party remains the locus of power.

On the campaign trail

The campaign officially ran betweenApril 27 and May 17. SOS Médias Burundi, though, reportedImbonerakure (CNDD-FDD party youth) campaigning beforehand and using intimidation tactics — even entering people's houses, notably in “opposition” neighborhoods. They also reportedlycoerced peopleto show support, including moto-taxidrivers and school children.

Many were also frustrated by delayed voter cards, even afterthe deadline was extended, and some CNL supporters accusedImbonerakure of withholdingtheir cards.

Iwacuand RFIdescribed a campaign marked by violence, including murders, kidnappings, fightsand interferencein rallies. These acts are disproportionately committed by CNDD-FDD supporters, often with complicityfrom police,although all campaigns were affected.

Opponents criticized arbitrary arrests, including over 200CNL supporters and severalcandidates. Analyst Julien Nimubona toldIwacu that the CNL's popularity provoked a repressive reaction from the CNDD-FDD government.

CENI’s president saidthe campaign went well and CNL supporters were not targeted. Police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikye even blamedCNL supporters for most incidents, although the Burundi Human Rights Initiative saidthis lacked credibility and neutrality.

Campaign messages

Most candidates focused on economic development in their messaging, and independent candidate Dieudonne Nahimanafocused on youth. Political language often became confrontational, though.

In CNDD-FDD ruling-party candidate Ndayishimiye's speeches,he referred to the 2015 crisis and said his party could not be stopped from winning again as they had a “divinemission.”

CNDD-FDD speechesoften evokegod, protectingthem from enemies, including Rwanda and Western states. They often denounce critics as imperialists to discredit them, positioning itself as a “liberator.”

Ndayishimiye likened opponents to supporters of the colonial-era Parti Democratique Chretien and said opponents provoked CNDD-FDD supporters.

CNL's Rwasa saidpeople would not accept electoral fraud, and he argued CNL supporters should not be held responsible if they defendthemselves. A police spokesperson and interiorminister thenaccusedhim of inciting violence. Rwasa reiteratedthatthey did not want conflict.

LeonceNgendakumana, the Sahwanya-Frodebuparty candidate, also criticized the CNDD-FDD’s rule. Francis Rohero, an independent candidate, saidhe viewed Rwasa and Ndayishimiye similarly — both ex-rebels focused only on their supporters.

Challenges ahead

The new president will face pressingquestions on international relations, political and media space, inclusive economicpolicies, and impunity.

After the 2015 elections, protests and a failed putsch followed, which triggered repressionof opponents, media and civil society, rebel attacks and economicstrife. Several hundred thousand fled the political and economic crisis as refugees.

International relations deteriorated, and Burundi unprecedentedly left the International Criminal Court after it began investigatingrights abuses.

The now-banned rights group Ligue Iteka recorded“hidden crimes”of 549 forced disappearances since 2015 and 67 killings between January and March 2020.

Written by Liam Anderson· comments (0)
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This post originally appeared on Global Voices.