Burundi’s Voting Season Set to Continue on Uncertain Path

Burundians celebrate the country's 53rd Independence Anniversary amid ongoing electoral violence and uncertainty. Bujumbura, Burundi, July 1, 2015. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Burundi’s legislative and communal elections held late last month could signal the start of a tense voting season characterized by sporadic violence. As the country awaits the full results of polls that the ruling party is widely expected to win, the unrest continues. Explosions and gunfire have heightened tensions in districts of the capital Bujumbura that are opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term on July 15. Ignoring a host of international recommendations to delay voting until the political environment is more stable, the government pressed ahead and cast a cloud over the country’s political future.

Due to the increasingly volatile climate and an opposition boycott of the June 29 polls, some reports suggest many of the country’s 3.8 million registered voters did not cast their ballots and the United Nations has said the elections were not free and fair. However, the president of the national elections commission estimates there was a 75-80% turnout and said the poll ran smoothly. Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party also says it was pleased with the election process.

Unsurprisingly, some opposition leaders condemned the elections. These include Charles Nditije, a key anti-third term activist and former leader of a party allied to the CNDD-FDD, who alleges there were serious irregularities. According to Nditije, in some areas of Bujumbura voters were allowed to cast their ballots without identity cards and there was a marked absence of electoral observers in many polling stations around the country.

Local civil society and human rights groups observed the polls, including the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons, which estimates that more than 70 people have been killed and over 1,000 arrested since the anti-Nkurunziza demonstrations began on April 26. Although the European Union and African Union withdrew their observer missions citing unacceptable conditions for free and fair polls, countries such as Kenya and Senegal, as well as the UN, sent observers, though the latter emphasized that this electoral deployment did not condone the government’s actions.

Although there are serious doubts and questions over the fairness and peacefulness of the elections, the CNDD-FDD emerged the likely victors due to its strong rural base of support. The party is likely to dominate in the provincial strongholds of Bubanza—the president’s homeland—Bujumbura Rural, and Bururi in the south. CNDD-FDD could even increase its political power following the recent vote if it can build on the 81 seats it won in 2010. In the absence of the boycotting opposition, the main legislative contender was the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), CNDD-FDD’s sometime ally and the sole ruling party in Burundi prior to the 13-year civil war. It is now part of a 10-party coalition that could maintain its presence in strongholds that helped deliver it 16 seats in 2010’s legislative elections.

Beyond boosting Nkurunziza’s reelection bid, the poll results could provide CNDD-FDD more statutory powers to cement its rule, allowing it to unilaterally introduce changes in Burundian law. According to the Burundian constitution voting quorums are currently required to pass legislation and amend the supreme law. CNDD-FDD has tried to amendment this before. In March 2014, it proposed an adjustment of the voting threshold to help push through constitutional reforms, including extending the two-term presidency to three. That vote was boycotted by UPRONA and CNDD-FDD failed to get the 85 votes required, which could now soon be within its reach. There are also fears that an increased CNDD-FDD vote could force through changes to the 60: 40 Hutu-Tutsi ethnic composition and the 70:30 gender balance of parliament.

However, such a move is only a possible scenario in the long run, and for now dialogue remains crucial to resolving Burundi’s political crisis. International observers such as France have urged an immediate return to UN-facilitated talks, but Burundi officials have already indicated they might not attend. A week before the June 29 poll, the ruling party and, subsequently, UPRONA, temporarily suspended participation in the talks, prioritizing the election campaign over mediation. The CNDD-FDD maintains that Burundi has ultimate sovereignty over its elections and rejects international intervention. UPRONA Secretary-General Gaston Sindimwo, meanwhile, believes talks can wait until after the presidential election is over.

CNDD-FDD  chairman Pascal Nyabenda says the party is set to continue supporting Nkurunziza’s presidential campaign. The party has accused opposition parties of calling for mediation and poll boycotts in order to lobby for the formation of a transitional government. The anti-third term movement rejects the accusation and points out that the ruling party’s withdrawal could go against the principle of political consensus laid out in the Arusha Accords, which ended a long-running civil war and established the post-conflict government in 2005. As a result of the ruling party’s suspended participation, calls for the African Union-backed, UN-led mediation to continue might not be heeded by the ruling and UPRONA presidential candidates.

The EU, a key development partner and election donor for Burundi, has also been deeply concerned about the ongoing violence largely attributed to the Nkurunziza regime, and withdrew its poll observer mission. It is now set to begin preparatory work on possible targeted sanctions against government figures. Likewise, the US has expressed disappointment in Burundi’s decision to hold the recent polls, suspending further technical election assistance and voter education programs, while promising to institute measures against those accused of perpetrating violence.

Facing possible sanctions from the West and strong disapproval from the AU, a reelected CNDD-FDD government could risk not being recognized by the broader international community. In spite of the threat of diplomatic estrangement, the Burundi government insists the polls are legitimate and is prepared to continue with preparations for the presidential election to be held in two weeks. This decision makes the opposition’s bargaining position much more difficult and increases the risk of more anti-government violence occurring. Among the disorder, Burundi also marked its 53rd Independence Day on July 1, with increasingly worrying prospects. With more than 1.5% of its 10.1 million people externally displaced out of fear, the poll results—recognized or not—will significantly shape the next stage of a crisis some fear could turn into widespread conflict.

Tendai Marima is an independent postdoctoral researcher and freelance journalist based in Southern Africa. Her work has been published by Al Jazeera English, African Arguments, and the Daily Vox. @i_amten.