Less than a week away from its first presidential vote since the last armed group laid down their guns, Burundi’s election is still missing a critical ingredient: candidates.
Only President Pierre Nkurunziza is running in the race. But members of opposition parties are campaigning anyway – not to win the election, but to convince their fellow Burundians to boycott the vote.
“We’ll hold a campaign against elections. We won’t kill. We won’t fight. But we will ask people not to vote,” says Leonard Nyangoma, a former presidential candidate and spokesperson for a coalition of 12 opposition parties who pulled out of the race, including Agathon Rwasa. He is the former leader of a holdout rebel group called the FNL that only laid down its arms in 2009. UPRONA, the country’s second-biggest political party, also joined the boycott.
Those abstaining say the president’s party stole its May victory in local elections. The ruling CNDD-FDD won 64 percent of that vote, in which 90 percent of the country’s registered voters – more than 3 million people – cast ballots. The ruling party has roots as one of the largest rebel groups in Burundi's 10-year civil war, which ended in 2003. Party chairman Mr. Nkurunziza was elected in 2005 to a five-year term as president.
The May election itself was largely peaceful, to the surprise and relief of observers, but allegations of what Mr. Nyangoma characterizes as “massive fraud” have lurched post-conflict Burundi into political crisis – and brought a new wave of violence to the capital city.
In the past week, more than 30 grenade explosions have been reported in the capital, killing several people. Violence has also been reported in rural areas.
Many Burundians say they fear the next election day may not be as peaceful as the last one. Some are also frustrated with the political elite’s inability to solve its disagreements.
“I can’t say yes or no” to the question of whether there was fraud, says Josiane Nzengiyumva, a sales clerk in Bujumbura, “because I don’t really know what happened. What I can say is this: After that, we have a problem. So the political parties need to work together to find a solution.”
Observers: No evidence of fraud
Opposition candidates lodged complaints about the local elections in early June, including the irregularity of poll hours and the failure to protect ballot secrecy. The parties, and local civil society groups, questioned the delayed release of official results and the inaccessibility of day-of documentation from the polls.
Opposition parties have demanded dialogue, the dissolution of an independent election commission they say is biased in favor of the president, and even a repeat of the May vote. The winning CNDD-FDD has accused the opposition of being “bad losers.”
The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) and the European Union (EU) observers concede there were “irregularities” in the process, including some of those cited by opposition parties, but insist there is no proof of fraud.
Renate Weber, chief of the EU Elections Observation Mission here, says she sees no evidence that the vote was rigged. “The way things were carried out, they could not actually lead to the vote in favor of one or another party,” says Ms. Weber.
Propsere Ntahorwamiye, spokesman of CENI, says the detractors waited too long to complain. “It’s as if the opposition parties woke up when the results were announced and said the vote had been stolen,” he says.
Convoluted balloting system
Among the difficulties in the elections here is a convoluted balloting system. In fact, there is no one ballot: Each party has its own slip.
Voters put the party slip of their preferred candidate into a white envelope; they put the slips of those they are voting against into a black envelope. Get the envelopes mixed up, or drop the wrong envelope in the wrong box, and the ballot is nullified.
Voters will only get one ballot this time around. If they support the president, the ballot goes in the white envelope. If they don’t, it goes in the black envelope. If the president fails to win a majority – “fifty percent plus one” – the rules call for a second round of balloting.
Effectively, it “transform[s] this into sort of an ad hoc referendum on the president,” says Weber.
The balloting process, which Weber calls a recent change, may also undermine the opposition’s strategy. The parties hoped their anti-elections campaign would lower turnout and illustrate the president’s dearth of support.
Alexis Sinduhije, a well-known former journalist and now ex-presidential candidate, says the approach may still demonstrate something significant. “If we have less people voting, it’s going to confirm that they want fair elections, that they want competition,” he says.
“The best scenario for us is if under 1 million people vote. We’ll be energized for parliamentary elections,” Mr. Sinduhije adds, hinting that at least his Movement for Social Democracy party may rejoin the process for next month’s vote. “If there’s more than 2 million – the game will be over.”
Is it democracy when there is only one candidate?
Either way, some Burundians say, the excitement has worn off. “I won’t vote on election day,” says one woman in Bujumbura, who cast a vote for the MSD in May. “I was excited to vote before, but not now.” Like many here, she refused to be quoted by name, citing increasing security concerns.
Renaud Dewit, spokesperson for the EU observation mission, says the mission will “wait and see” if the parties rejoin the next two elections, in July and September before assessing whether to pull the mission rather than document a series of one-party races.
As of Monday, not even the ruling party had registered a candidate; the deadline, originally today, has been extended by CENI until Friday.
Weber says the political crisis undermines the country’s recent progress. Burundi had a reputation, she says, “as an emerging democracy.”
“It is important for the peace process that democracy in Burundi would find its way,” Weber says, “and democracy without party pluralism is difficult actually to conceive.”
This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.