Burundi: Can a credible election take place amid political crackdown?

East African leaders have urged President Nkurunziza to delay the Burundi presidential election by a month. But Burundians say that no matter the date, there is little chance that any election will be free or fair.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A policeman throws a tear gas canister at anti-government protesters in Bujumbura, Burundi, on Tuesday.

Residents of the Musaga neighborhood here in Burundi's capital have resorted to stringing strips of mosquito netting across the entrance of their street for protection. 

“We put this here to defend our neighborhood from the police and the military. It can’t really protect us, but it's all we have,” says Eric Ndayisenga, an electrician. This area has been a stronghold of anti-government protests since April 25, when the ruling party announced President Pierre Nkrurunziza would run for a controversial third term. 

Fear has gripped Burundi since a failed coup ended on May 13. The government used the uprising as an opportunity to crackdown on protestors, journalists, human rights activists, and any perceived opposition, making the current landscape virtually impossible for the presidential election scheduled for June 26 to be credible.

The most prominent opposition candidate, Agathon Rwasa of National Forces of Liberation (FNL), announced Friday that he is boycotting the elections because he no longer feels safe. Nor does he believe in the likelihood of a fair democratic process. His statement followed the May 23 killing of opposition leader Zedi Feruzi in a drive-by shooting. Also, no independent media is functioning, and most journalists are in hiding or have fled.

“If the general population is in fear for their life and their rights that is not a situation conducive to free and fair elections,” says Stephanie Schwartz, a Burundi expert and PhD candidate at Columbia University.

Two members of the five-member electoral commission have likely fled the country, leaving just three in charge of conducting the election. They will also decide whether to delay the presidential vote by six weeks as recommended by the East African Community members in a meeting this Sunday. While it remains uncertain whether Mr. Nkurunziza will take heed, growing government intimidation is making it hard for all forms of opposition.

Intimidation is not new in Burundi, and the political space has been shrinking since before the 2010 election. But today, as Burundi prepares for an election in which its tenuous peace and democracy is at stake, all forms of opposition have all but disappeared.

Post-coup crackdown

The protests that rocked Burundi for weeks have since slowed to a trickle. Several dozen protestors still pound the streets most days, waving “Stop the third term” placards. But they say police are growing increasingly violent. Human Rights Watch says that since demonstrations began on April 26, at least 27 protestors have been killed and more than 300 have been injured.

“Get out of the streets or we’ll shoot you in the legs so you can’t run” says Blaise Ndayisenga from Musaga, recounting what an officer said to him when he tried to protest shortly after the failed coup.

“They’re saying we’re putschists and we’re not,” he says, referring to the word the government uses for coup-supporters. Shortly after the coup, the government announced all protestors would be considered accomplices, blurring the line between the protestors and the military personnel who led the coup.

“We didn’t want the coup. Confusing between the demonstrators and those who made the coup is something which was prepared just to have a reason to throw people in jail,” says Justine Nkurunziza, the chairwoman of COSOME, a human rights group that opposed the president’s third term. “People are arrested on a daily basis and others are disappearing.”

Ms. Nkurunziza, who is not related to the president, says she received a phone call after the failed coup notifying her that she was on a list of people targeted for arrest or assassination. She fled to Rwanda and has yet felt safe enough to return to Burundi.

Politics as usual?

Political violence is not without precedent in Burundi, which emerged from civil war only a decade ago.

“The patterns of repressions are very similar to what we saw in the lead-up of the 2010 elections,” said Yolande Bouka, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, in an email. In 2010, Nkurunziza ran unopposed after opposition parties boycotted the election. In the weeks ahead of it, dozens of opposition leaders were arrested, opposition party meetings were banned, and those who weren’t arrested were closely monitored.

Political violence, perpetrated by both sides, also spiked ahead of the 2010 election with nearly a hundred grenade attacks, the assassination of two ruling party activists and an opposition activist, and arson attacks on local ruling party offices.

But Ms. Bouka says the stakes are much higher this time round.

“These elections are the litmus test of democratic transition,” she says. “By refusing to step aside, President Nkurunziza is moving the country away from democratic consolidation and more towards authoritarianism.”

Analysts and human rights groups also fear that dangerous puzzle pieces, such as increased ethnic-tinged rhetoric and the mobilization of Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, could be falling into a place that could lead to mass violence. 

“I feel very strongly that this will not end well, that the propensity for violence is very, very high,” says Cara Jones, an expert on Burundi and assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College. “The trigger warnings we would expect to see in a civil war situation are there.”

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