Polls in doubt as Catholic Church and EU mission quit

Saturday May 30 2015

Burundian refugees sing in a boat on May 25, 2015 while being transferred from a camp in Kagunga to Kigoma in Tanzania. PHOTO | AFP

Burundi has criticised the European Union for recalling its elections observation mission ahead of the legislative polls this week.

The EU recalled its observers, who arrived in the country last month to monitor the parliamentary and presidential elections, saying Burundi lacked the conditions for credible and free elections.

According to the EU, the election continues to be marred by restrictions on independent media as well as excessive use of force against demonstrators.

The observation mission in Burundi, said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, could not fulfil its role in a “climate of intimidation for opposition parties and civil society and lack of confidence in the election authorities.”

The statement was immediately condemned by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s spokesperson, Gervais Abayeho, who told The EastAfrican on phone that the suspension was “unfortunate and untimely” as legislative and parliamentary polls are set to take place on June 5.

He said it was wrong for the EU to recall its observers just a few days before the polls “when they should be the ones to tell the world whether the exercise was free and fair.”


READ: Burundi condemns foreign pressure over political crisis

The influential Catholic Church had also announced that it was withdrawing its support for the elections. In a statement, Burundi’s bishops told priests serving in the electoral commission to step down because the church could not endorse a process “riddled with gaps.”

Gervais Bashimiyubusa, president of the Episcopal Conference of Burundi, wrote: “After taking into account the way in which the elections are held… we believe that the priests should resign [from the elections].”

READ: Catholic church drops backing for Burundi elections

The bishops’ decision could deal a blow to President Nkurunziza’s re-election as the Church has enormous influence over the country’s electoral process — with almost half of the provincial and municipal elections commissions headed by a priest.

Mr Abayeho however downplayed the potential blowback from the move, saying the priests were appointed in their individual capacity and not as representatives of the Church.

“This is not the first time they are doing this,” he told The EastAfrican. “They have tried to withdraw before from what is essentially a civic responsibility.

“About 25 priests work for the commission and they are replaceable. Other capable Burundians will be appointed in their place.”

The EU has been in negotiations with the government in the past few weeks over the presence of the observer mission in light of the unrest following the president’s disputed third term bid.

After his first meeting with government representatives, opposition leaders, the electoral commission and civil society groups, David Martin, a member of the European Parliament who is the EU mission’s chief observer, said the prevailing conditions in Burundi could not allow a free and fair election to be held.

“As impartial election observers, we don’t care who wins, we care about how they win,” said Mr Martin.

However, concerns that the withdrawal of the observers may dent the credibility of the polls did not seem to move President Nkurunziza’s government.

Speaking to The EastAfrican, the president’s spokesperson said the government welcomed any party interested in observing the elections and that “recalling 40 EU observers would not affect the credibility of the elections.

“As long as the UN has a team of 200-plus persons, we think they are representative enough to tell the world the conduct of the elections.”

The EU however says it is ready to reinstate the mission if there are acceptable conditions to hold a democratic poll.

“I stand ready to swiftly restart the EOM should acceptable conditions for the conduct of democratic elections be agreed by domestic stakeholders,” said Mr Mogherini.

Belgium and the Netherlands suspended financial aid for Burundi’s elections last month following violent clashes between security forces and protesters.

This has placed the government in an embarrassing position, where it has been forced to beg its citizens to help it to raise the $28 million required to finance the elections — which Burundians and the international community say should be postponed until the political crisis is resolved.

Uncertainty over the polls

There is uncertainty over the polls, initially scheduled to take place last week but postponed by the president following local and international pressure.

“Nobody is campaigning in the country; only the president’s party is campaigning,” a local journalist in Burundi, who cannot be named for security reasons, told The East-African. “There are indications that the opposition may boycott the elections again, like it did in 2010.”

Thierry Vircoulon, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who researches on Central Africa, told The EastAfrican “it’s very clear for everybody that the opposition will get very few votes.

“So, their choice is between humiliation by participating or avoiding humiliation by not participating because, at this stage, the elections have no legitimacy, with or without a boycott.”