On May 20, Burundians voted in one of the most significant polls in the country’s 58 years of independence. Given its tumultuous history, the latest polls were largely seen as a moon-shot at an orderly handover of power.
In going ahead with the poll, Burundi joined a handful of countries that have managed to conduct general elections during the current coronavirus pandemic. In that, Bujumbura presents a template for countries such as Tanzania and Uganda that have presidential and legislative polls due over the next eight months or so.
The tone for the latest polls was set when, to the surprise of many observers, President Pierre Nkurunziza decided not to contest even though he was eligible to do so. That was a powerful message that signalled a desire to set Burundi’s democratic evolution on a new course, especially in light of the circumstances that surrounded Mr Nkurunziza’s re-election in May 2015. Yet the events that preceded the presidential, legislative and local elections on Wednesday showed that little had changed in Burundi’s political culture.
After financing the polls from her own resources, Bujumbura made it difficult for independent observers to monitor the conduct of the elections. The observers were belatedly served with a 14-day quarantine requirement, forcing them to abandon the mission.
Coming from an administration that has shown reluctance to enforce Covid-19 control measures during the campaigns, the order on observers can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to shield the elections from international scrutiny.
That is bad in the sense that there will be no independent arbiters in the event of a dispute over the results. Human rights watchdogs reported at least 81 deaths from election violence. While lower than the toll from previous polls, the election process is yet to be concluded, until results are announced and new officeholders sworn in.
Social media platforms were blocked on the polling day, while agents of opposition candidates were prevented from counting the ballot at polling stations.
Widespread violence, including a grenade attack during the month-long campaigns, attest to the long road Burundi has to traverse before it can conduct elections whose outcome is seen as fair by all parties involved. Government officials confirmed the detention of some 200 opposition supporters whom they accused of engaging in electoral fraud.
Such a confluence of happenings is unlikely to inspire much confidence in the integrity and credibility of the polls. It is not uncommon in Africa for the opposition to blame their electoral losses on fraud.
Regardless of whether they would have lost anyway, the conduct of the ruling parties during and after elections, often lends credence to such claims.
The burden is on the CENI, Burundi’s independent electoral commission, to be seen as a fair arbiter. The nearly week-long time lag between voting and announcement of results can only fuel speculation.
For Burundi to move on, it is important that CENI declares the results within the shortest time possible. The political elite and the international community also need to look at the election in the wider context of the country’s social and political transformation. A flawless poll might not have been possible. But its character must demonstrate visible gains for democracy.