Could elections lead to another political crisis in Burundi?

If the ruling party wins and the opposition cries foul, Burundi could face another prolonged crisis.

Burundi’s main opposition candidate in this week’s elections, Agathon Rwasa, exudes confidence. His rallies are well attended despite violence meted out against his party members and the threat of COVID-19, which the country’s politicians have largely ignored.

In a letter to the electoral commission ahead of the 20 May vote, Rwasa points out serious irregularities with the voters roll and the distribution of voting cards. His consistent complaints about vote rigging and the unlevel playing field could indicate that he is preparing for an even bigger complaint about the credibility of the polls.

Research this year by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Burundi showed a tense atmosphere in the run-up to the vote, given political violence in the country for several years now. The fact that President Pierre Nkurunziza is stepping down after 15 years opens up the possibility of a win by Rwasa, a historic opposition figure. He spent years as a rebel leader and created the National Congress for Freedom (CNL) in 2019.

However for Rwasa to win, elections will have to be free and fair, which seems unlikely. Many of the ruling party’s political opponents have been kidnapped, harassed and tortured by security forces and the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing. The ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) also controls the electoral commission and the Constitutional Court. These would have the final say in a legal challenge to election results.

For Rwasa to win, elections will have to be free and fair, which at this stage seems unlikely

All these factors, together with the CNDD-FDD’s determination to stay in power, make a Rwasa win highly unlikely. Nkurunziza is being replaced as candidate for the ruling party by former general and close aide Evariste Ndayishimiye.

The problem is that barring a few NGOs and brave journalists who are risking their lives to report independently on the elections, it will be difficult to know whether Rwasa – if he loses and cries foul – is telling the truth.

Burundi refuses to allow international observers to witness the elections, including those from the African Union (AU), which is unusual for an AU member state. The government has been at loggerheads with the AU since the political turmoil leading up to and following the re-election of Nkurunziza in 2015.

Burundi is a member of the AU Peace and Security Council and it’s difficult to see how the institution charged with ensuring peace in Africa can play a meaningful role in any post-election crisis in Burundi.

The only group that was initially allowed to observe the polls is the East African Community, which planned to send a small group of 20 observers. However Burundi announced they would have to be quarantined for 14 days after arrival due to COVID-19. So they would effectively have to spend voting day behind closed doors. As a result, the electoral commission announced there would be no outside observers.

Closing the airport is more about excluding election observers than protecting citizens from COVID-19

This is ironic given that the government has paid scant attention to the measures recommended by the World Health Organization and the AU’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Closing Bujumbura’s international airport is seen more as a measure to stop observers coming in than to protect citizens from COVID-19.

According to an ISS Burundi consultant, who cannot be named for safety reasons, there is a good chance the elections will lead to another prolonged political crisis if the ruling party wins by a narrow margin and Rwasa then cries foul. Some are pinning their hopes on a possible opposition coalition in a second round of presidential elections, with opposition figures such as former president Domitien Ndayizeye rallying behind Rwasa.

The ISS expert however believes the chances of a second round between Rwasa and Ndayishimiye is unlikely. Instead, the CNDD-FDD is expected to walk away with a victory ‘regardless of what really happens when people cast their ballots.’ He believes Rwasa could very well refuse to acknowledge the winner and make life difficult for Ndayishimiye.

‘Given the fact that the CNL is buoyed by its popularity, the risk of an electoral crisis is high. If this is coupled with an outbreak of COVID-19, the country risks a health crisis over the medium term and an economic recession over the longer term,’ he says.

Burundi won’t allow international observers to witness the elections, including those from the AU

Burundi is already suffering severe economic decline due to the crisis that started with Nkurunziza’s third term bid. Close to 350 000 refugees are living outside the country, mostly in Tanzania. According to ISS research, hundreds of people have been killed, abducted and tortured since 2015. Thousands have been kept as political prisoners.

If Ndayishimiye becomes president, will he be able to appease the tensions and steer Burundi in a new direction? Will he be able to mend fences in a neighbourhood characterised by political crisis and animosity?

Some believe that although the ruling party candidate is saying publicly he will follow in Nkurunziza’s footsteps, he might bring about change since he has apparently said privately that he would favour more ‘openness’. This, however, remains to be seen. Ndayishimiye has for years been party to a military system that has unleashed repression on anyone who dares criticise the ruling party.

Ndayishimiye has also spoken about opening up the economy to attract investment – not dissimilar to the promises made by Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he took power at the end of 2017. This is unlikely to happen though unless such a strategy has the buy-in of Burundi’s military top brass, according to the ISS.

Stakes are high in these elections, taking place in the time of COVID-19, and amid a serious risk of escalating political violence. What Burundi urgently needs is a new beginning. For now, however, it seems Burundians will have to wait a while longer before they see any real peace and political stability.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher and Project Leader, Southern Africa, ISS Pretoria 

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