Berthier Mugiraneza/AP
Ruling party presidential candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye casts his vote in the presidential election in Burundi on May 20, 2020. Many Burundians were surprised that President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to step aside before 2025, when his presidential term would end.

Burundi holds high-stakes presidential election amid virus

The East African country held a crucial presidential election despite the pandemic. President Pierre Nkurunziza, surprisingly, decided to step aside after a divisive 15-year rule, but says his will remain a "paramount leader" in the country.

A crucial election appeared peaceful on Wednesday in the East African nation of Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is stepping aside after a divisive 15-year rule but will remain "paramount leader" in the country that often rejects outside scrutiny.

The vote is one of the most important transfers of power in Burundi since independence in 1962. Some observers worry that disputed results could lead to the kind of violence that marked the previous vote in 2015.

Few face masks were seen, even on the ruling party's candidate, in crowded lines of voters though some paused to wash their hands. Burundi has been criticized for not appearing to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. Mr. Nkurunziza himself attended crowded political rallies. The country has 42 confirmed virus cases but testing has been limited.

"We are not afraid because the organizers did not require us to distance 1 meter," voter Ndayishimiye Innocent said. "They saw that God is with us."

Regional observers were not present after being told that arriving foreigners would face a 14-day quarantine. Citizens and journalists said access to social media was not possible without a virtual private network.

"The government is cutting social media so that we don't tell the world what is happening," voter Jean Pierre Bazikamwe said.

Mr. Nkurunziza praised the election because "no foreigner came to trouble them as it happened in the past."

Ahead of the vote, government agents were accused of harassing the main opposition party, the CNL, whose leader Agathon Rwasa, the deputy parliament speaker, was believed to be in a close race with Mr. Nkurunziza's chosen successor in the ruling CNDD-FDD, Evariste Ndayishimiye. Police accused Mr. Rwasa of making "incendiary and defamatory" remarks and inciting revolt.

Mr. Ndayishimiye called on all candidates to accept the results. "You cannot refuse the decision of Burundians who voted because you also are included in them," he said.

Analysts have said Mr. Ndayishimiye, a retired general, would be a front for Mr. Nkurunziza and other powerful ruling party members.

Mr. Rwasa condemned the social media cuts, saying it could be a way of committing election fraud. He called for respecting the people's will. "If we are satisfied we will say it, but if we are not we will also say it," he said.

One electoral commission official, Zirabura Ferdinand, dismissed concerns: "As you can see, everything is in order and we expect everything to move along freely and fairly."

But demonstrations marked the vote in 2015, when Mr. Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term that some called unconstitutional.

On Wednesday the president said people would not oppose the results this time "because in the past they did it due to ignorance" and asserted that "they won't commit the same mistake."

The deadly turmoil after the 2015 vote badly damaged global relations, and Burundi became the first country to leave the International Criminal Court after it started investigating abuses. The U.N. human rights office reported more than 300 extrajudicial killings and was kicked out of the country. Burundi's government has denied it targets its people.

Last week, the World Health Organization's top official in Burundi was kicked out amid concerns about the pandemic response.

If none of the seven candidates receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election will occur within weeks. More than 5 million people were registered to vote in the country of nearly 12 million.

Many Burundians were surprised that Mr. Nkurunziza would step aside after a referendum in 2018 extended the length of a presidential term to seven years.

Africa News reported: 

The polls will usher in the post-Pierre Nkurunziza era. But voters also cast ballots for lawmakers and local level representatives. Internet connectivity for social media and messaging apps were blocked early Wednesday morning.

Burundians stood in long lines outside polling stations, which opened shortly after six am, most centers had hand washing points for people arriving to vote and election officials had some protective equipments in some instances.

After casting his ballot, Nkurunziza praised Burundians for the peaceful conduct of the process which he reiterated had been fully funded with local finances. He also stressed that politics was meant to serve the greater benefit of the populace.

He arrived at the polling station on a bicycle surrounded by his guards, he wore a track suit of his club Aleluya FC with a brown cow boy hat with the Burundian flag. Preliminary results are expected by May 25.

Critics and rights groups have warned that Mr. Nkurunziza is unpredictable and the election could be a mere formality.

"We are not going to have a credible election," said Stephanie Wolters, an analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs. "If Ndayishimiye is elected, he will have to invite political opposition, civil society back into the country and also participate in the national dialogue with the opposition."

Some voters reflected the skepticism and uncertainty.

"I know my vote won't be counted but I have to make a change. That is why I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to come to vote," said one, Suzane Bucumi.

Ruling party supporters disagreed.

"During the civil war [from 1993 to 2005 that killed about 300,000 people] I lost my parents and we were not spending nights in our homes. I must vote for Evriste Ndayishimiye because it is the CNDD-FDD who ended the war," said voter Marie Nduwimana.

"We thank the CNDD-FDD because these recent 15 years we have security," said Melance Hakizimana, who added that "in a family there must be a heir to organize the affairs."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Material from Al Jazeera was used in this report.

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