Free and fair polls in Burundi? Who shouts first after the count?

Tuesday May 26 2020

Burundi election.

A woman casts her ballot during the presidential and general elections at the Bubu Primary school in Giheta, central Burundi, on May 20, 2020. PHOTO | AFP 

RICHARD MONCRIEFF
By RICHARD MONCRIEFF
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NELLEKE VAN DE WALLE
By NELLEKE VAN DE WALLE
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With the authorities barring international observers at the last minute by invoking Covid-19 and a run-up to the polls marred by intensified violence and opposition repression, a serious question mark hangs over the credibility of Burundi’s Wednesday elections.

After suffering five years of often violent political crisis, Burundians went to the polls on May 20, 2020.

The elections saw Évariste Ndayishimiye standing for the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) and Agathon Rwasa for the main opposition party Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL). Reports indicate that voting day passed peacefully. But that does not mean the elections were credible or that conflict will not re-emerge.

The East African Community was set to deploy a team to Burundi to monitor the presidential, legislative and municipal elections that would in particular determine a successor to the 15-year incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, and replace the National Assembly. But ten days before the polls, the Great Lakes nation’s authorities announced that the incoming observers would be quarantined for 14 days due to the coronavirus, effectively side-lining them from monitoring.

It is unclear whether the decision was made for legitimate public health reasons, given that the government has otherwise played down the outbreak, claiming that Burundi is under divine protection from the virus. At a minimum, it seemed to serve the authorities’ interest in keeping the poll away from international scrutiny.

Although shorn of international monitors, Wednesday’s poll seems to have been generally peaceful. No major incident was reported.

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However, observers inside the country say that reports of irregularities have surfaced. Social media and messaging apps were disrupted. Some polling stations opened late in various localities, and authorities expelled or arrested several accredited opposition election observers.

Without a credible external observation mission, and with independent media also muzzled, it will be very difficult to assess how the vote went, as the country awaits the announcement of the preliminary results on May 26.

Independent international and national media and civil society have been heavily stifled through travel restrictions, licence suspensions and other measures.

The lack of reliable and agreed information around the elections may increase the risk of serious disputes. The two frontrunners, Ndayishimiye and Rwasa, were both boosted by campaigns that attracted large crowds, and went in thinking they stood a good chance of winning.

Rwasa’s party has limited trust in the country’s electoral commission and ran its own parallel vote tally. In the absence of credible observers validating the official results, Burundi could end up with two candidates claiming victory.

This could result in violent clashes between the opposition and the ruling party. Rwasa has declared he will not allow the ruling party to “steal his election” and Nkurunziza that he will not tolerate a call for violence. “Clear orders have been issued to law enforcement, the military and the intelligence services”, he said.

The last thing Burundi needs is more rancour. It is vital that both sides refrain from using antagonistic rhetoric and that they work peacefully together to address any disputes that emerge from the elections. After five years of political repression and violence, it is time to give the nation’s wounds a chance to heal.

Richard Moncrieff is the International Crisis Group's Central Africa project director, and Nelleke Van De Walle is the group’s Central Africa deputy project director.

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This article was first published in The EastAfrican edition of May 23-29.

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