For the first time since gaining independence from Belgian colonization in 1962, democratically-elected leaders in Burundi have ended their term in office. For many, this highlights the quest towards restoration of peace and security following decades of political turmoil. As an important part of this journey, the May 24 communal elections kicked off a four-month electoral period that included the presidential elections on June 28. Next on the timetable are parliamentary elections on July 23, Senate elections on July 28 and elections at the village level on September 7.

With a population of more than 8 million, the history of Burundi has been tainted by a bloody ethnic conflict between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, which claimed millions of lives and widespread damage to property. The absence of peace prevented the creation of an environment conducive to meaningful sustainable development, thus leaving Burundi as one of the most impoverished nations on the planet.

Despite this bleak reality, Burundians had a glimmer of hope that the worst was behind them and that the 2010 elections would be a sign of progress. Exceeding expectations, over 3 million people registered to vote in the multi-party communal contest. Seeking re-election is the incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza and the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy- Forces for the Defense of Democracy (known by its French acronym, CNDD-FDD). Unfortunately, for the citizens of Burundi, the credibility of these elections is in question, as opposition parties have voiced their concerns of rigging. Subsequently, there are fears of violent disruptions that have the potential to delay progress.

On a recent visit to this country in Africa’s Great Lakes Region, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon shared this sentiment and called for “a spirit of compromise,” which is necessary for “recovery, reconciliation, reform, economic development and an end to impunity.”

Tasked with conducting the five-stage polls is the neutral National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI). The May 24 communal level elections featured twenty-three political parties competing for votes. CENI reported a very high-turnout of 90-percent in what was a surprisingly peaceful event. However, this optimism was short-lived when the results were made public that the ruling CNDD-FDD had captured over 60-percent of the vote. Soon after, allegations of fraud surfaced and opposition parties rejected the outcome and demanded a re-run.

In condemning the contest as fraudulent, opposition candidates have pointed towards several irregularities and peculiar procedures. Among these they cite the unusual system of providing each voter with 24 ballots bearing the name or symbol of a different party and two envelopes. After making a selection, the voter places this slip in the white envelope and the rest into the black envelope. The opposition posited that such a procedure permits potential rigging as valid ballot papers are left lying about. In addition to such a convoluted system, the opposition claimed that booths were small and screens too low, allowing CNDD-FDD activists to watch voters, thus frightening them from voting against the ruling party.

Responding to these accusations, the electoral commission spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiya defended the process as it “prevent[ed] voters from taking to their homes ballot papers which they did not put in the white envelope.”

Despite these irregularities, international observers accepted the results of the communal elections; EU monitors recognized the lack of respect for the electoral code but deemed the process acceptable. Nevertheless, the EU acknowledged the possibility of violent outbreaks as a consequence of the disputed outcome.

On this note, several US lawmakers aired their concerns about destabilizing forces. Prior to the May 24 vote, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) referred to a report by the International Crisis Group claiming that “opposition parties are facing harassment and intimidation from police and the ruling party’s youth wing and appear to be choosing to respond to violence with violence.” Speaking on this issue in the post-communal election timeframe, United States Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, Johnnie Carson stated that “members of the ruling party […] have used government resources and state authority for elections advantage, and some have intimidated opponents.”

Despite international calls for negotiation rather than altercation, the fear of violence has materialized with reports of over 40 grenade blasts across Burundi. Furthermore, police spokesman Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi confirmed that atleast 2 have died, 37 have been wounded and property destroyed with the burning down of opposition group offices and residences in what he described as acts of “sabotage ahead of the presidential poll.” In response to these events, President Nkurunziza warned “anyone in possession of firearms to surrender them to the police before June 25, or face sanctions.”

Opposition parties have distanced themselves from violence; instead they have called for a campaign against the next set of elections. Leonard Nyagoma, a spokesman for the opposition and former rebel leader implied this when stating, “We won’t kill. We won’t fight. But we will ask people not to vote.” Other groups have joined up to form a coalition of 13 parties named the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC) aiming to undermine the vote. They have recognized the landslide victory for the ruling CNDD-FDD to vote-buying with state resources and ballot-box stuffing. Additionally, this group has accused the electoral commission of complicity and hence wants it replaced. By rejecting the results of the communal contest, ADC has demanded a re-run administered by another neutral agency.

In calling for a boycott, all presidential challengers simultaneously withdrew their bids, leaving President Nkurunziza as the lone candidate. Agathon Rwasa, former leader of a holdout rebel group, the National Liberation Forces (FNL) which transitioned into a political party in 2009 was expected to be the incumbent’s chief rival. In an interview with AFP, he stated, “I refuse to take part in a fraudulent election whose results are already decided.” After vanishing for a week, Mr. Rwasa broke his silence and confirmed that he had gone into hiding out of fear for his safety.

In light of these allegations, CNDD-FDD dismissed the former candidates as “bad losers” and insisted that the vote must proceed as scheduled. Meanwhile, the opposition expressed its intention to resort to other methods to fight for democracy. “We will use all our means to counter the illegal government, including arms,” said Sinduhije, an award-winning journalist who has emerged as an opposition leader.

Even though the government issued a warning that those non-participants were unauthorized to stage rallies or public demonstrations because they intended to deprive Burundians of their voting rights, the ADC is campaigning to convince the people to boycott the elections. However, Alexis Sinduhije, an ex-candidate representing the Movement for Social Democracy defended their strategy by saying, “If we have less people voting, it’s going to confirm that [Burundians] want fair elections, that they want competition.”

This political crisis is undermining Burundi’s recent progress as a nascent democracy and suggesting that history is repeating itself. Historians are referring back to the first post-independence local elections, which resulted in a dangerous one-party power concentration that helped sow the seeds for the decades-long civil war. Fearing this reality, opposition leaders are calling on the international community to acknowledge the widespread rigging and react in a fashion in line with democratic principles to prevent an imminent disaster.

On June 28, the presidential election, which essentially metamorphosed into a referendum, was held with Nkurunziza as the solo candidate. With a 76-percent turnout (lower than the communal elections), 92-percent of the votes were cast in favor of the incumbent. Opposition leaders were quick to minimize the implications of this landslide victory by claiming that an unchallenged vote lacks credibility and that they would not accept the result.

Recognizing the fragility of this issue, diplomats are calling for restraint from all parties and have warned that Burundi continues to be in danger of falling back into civil strife. If the boycott continues, a constitutional crisis will unfold because there is a legal requirement for opposition representation in government. Moreover, any hopes for democracy will be dashed and Burundi may become a single-party state once again.

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By Kerezhi Sebany