A Vulnerable Peace: What’s at Stake in the Upcoming Burundian Elections

Burundian voters during the 2010 elections, July 23, 2010 (Flickr/Brice Blondel)

Starting in May, Burundians are scheduled to go to the polls for the third time since the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and subsequent cease-fire agreements ended the Burundian civil war in 2003. These are important elections with significant consequences for the consolidation of peace and economic recovery in the country, as well as for democracy in the wider Great Lakes region.

The ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, is a former rebel movement that belatedly signed a cease-fire agreement in 2003 and then went on to win the first post-war democratic elections in 2005, and the second ones in 2010. Complex power-sharing provisions were agreed upon during the Arusha peace negotiations and enshrined in the Burundian Constitution, which intended to ensure a certain degree of inclusivity in governance. While the civil war was fought partly over the issue of ethnic exclusion, the Burundian Constitution requires that executive and legislative organs are multiethnic.

Notwithstanding these requirements, the current regime has not followed the spirit of the Arusha Agreement, particularly its emphasis on consensual politics. The political climate in Burundi remains very tense and peace is fragile. There is great disagreement about the constitutionality of a third term for President Pierre Nkurunziza of the CNDD-FDD party. Burundian opposition parties claim that a third term would be unconstitutional, and the American Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region, Russ Feingold, weighed in saying that if President Nkurunziza stays in power this could threaten political stability and discourage investment. The constitution is ambiguous on the question of the admissibility of a third term in office. The powerful Catholic Church is opposed to Nkurunziza’s candidacy. According to the most recent Afrobarometer survey, 62 percent of Burundians believe that there should be a limit of two presidential mandates. The ruling CNDD-FDD party itself is fractured, with key officials making strategic alignments and re-alignments, mostly according to political opportunism. The opposition has tried to forge a coalition with a common platform, but this has been a challenge, since the only issue that unites them is their opposition to the ruling party. Political fragmentation is rarely a harbinger of societal peace.

Meanwhile, there are worrying signs across the country, including the deterioration of the socioeconomic situation, an increase in human rights violations, the normalization of corruption, the harassment of the political opposition and civil society groups, and the polarization of political discourse. Political violence is a concern, particularly the activities of the youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure (“those that see far”), who are using tactics of intimidation and coercion in the countryside to ensure a victory for the ruling party.

Whether or not President Nkurunziza stands for re-election, there are three likely possible outcomes to the election. The first possibility is that the CNDD-FDD achieves an overwhelming victory over its rivals. In 2010, the CNDD-FDD received 64 percent of the vote in communal elections, and 81 percent of the vote in the National Assembly elections (most of the opposition parties boycotted the elections after the communal results). It is not impossible that the CNDD-FDD could score a similar victory this time. Such a result would further threaten the constitutional power-sharing provisions. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass legislation, and a four-fifths majority is needed to amend the constitution. A sizeable victory by the CNDD-FDD would bury Arusha and would virtually assure a one-party dominant state for years to come.

A second possible outcome is a mitigated victory by the CNDD-FDD, with a strong showing by opposition parties. Opposition parties have learned from their mistake of withdrawing from the 2010 contest, and the CNDD-FDD is not popular in some parts of the country, particularly in urban centers including the capital Bujumbura, in Bujumbura-Rural, and to a lesser extent in Bururi. This outcome would allow for the continuation of Arusha with its power-sharing institutions.

A third possible scenario is the derailment of the electoral process. There have been allegations of irregularities in electoral registering, and voter intimidation by the Imbonerakure. A number of prominent critical voices have been silenced, and some journalists and civil society activists have been arrested. This intimidation risks discrediting the elections and delegitimizing electoral institutions, with consequences for social peace.

It is very unlikely that Burundi will experience the kind of large-scale violence that characterized the aftermath of the 1993 elections, and triggered its civil war. Nonetheless, there are dire consequences to a situation where the CNDD-FDD emerges with a stranglehold on Burundian institutions. The country is already in a precarious economic situation, and is ranked 180th out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Index. It is in urgent need of donor funds, which risk being reduced if donors are not satisfied by the conduct of the elections. The growing gulf between wealthy elites in the capital and the vast majority of Burundians is not going unnoticed. While President Nkurunziza was popular in the Burundian countryside during his first mandate due to his populist rhetoric and ability to connect with ordinary voters, high rates of poverty and corruption mean that it is increasingly necessary for the CNDD-FDD to resort to coercive control to maintain their dominance in the countryside. The results of the election will also have consequences for the fledgling justice sector and for the controversial National Land Commission (the CNTB), which was established in 2006 to resettle refugee returnees and to address widespread grievances and disputes related to land and other properties.

Burundi’s elections will set the stage for a busy electoral calendar in the Great Lakes region, with Tanzania going to the polls later in 2015, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2016, Uganda in 2016, and Rwanda in 2017. All these countries except Tanzania have issues with presidential term limits. They are all watching Burundi closely since the electoral outcome in Burundi, along with donor reactions, will send a message to other long-standing heads of state in the region. This is not a region that is well known for its multi-party democracy. Burundi has the opportunity to set a promising example to the region. Current trends, however, suggest the opposite. After a long war, extensive peace negotiations, a carefully calibrated constitution, and a circuitous road to economic recovery, Burundians deserve better than what appears to be on offer.

Devon Curtis is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Willy Nindorera is an Independent Consultant based in Bujumbura, Burundi.