Burundi votes: Overnight deaths fuel fears of election day violence

The runup to the presidential election, in which President Nkurunziza is running for a constitutionally disputed third term, has been marred by violence and a failed coup. Opposition candidates have withdrawn in protest.

Berthier Mugiraneza/AP
Voters queue up to cast their votes for the presidential election, in Ngozi, Burundi, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Burundi began voting in its disputed presidential election Tuesday with low turnouts in the capital following a night of explosions and gunfire in opposition strongholds where residents oppose President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term.

Polls for Burundi’s presidential election opened Tuesday to the news that two people had been killed overnight, raising concern that the fraught process could be marred by further political unrest and violence as it nears the finish line.

A policeman and an opposition member died, Reuters reports, though the circumstances surrounding their deaths are unclear. Gunfire was also heard early Tuesday morning in a neighborhood in the capital, Bujumbura.  

Presidential adviser Willy Nyamitwe blamed the opposition and protesters for the overnight violence: "People do it to intimidate voters. They don't want the voters to go to the polls," he told Reuters.

Since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a constitutionally disputed third term in April, there have been violent protests, a failed coup, opposition boycotts, and calls of postponement. Fears that Burundi could be spiraling into another civil war – the last one ended in 2005 – have prompted as many as 170,000 people to flee to neighboring countries, the United Nation reports.

Most opposition candidates have dropped out, saying that fair and free elections are not expected. Of the eight presidential candidates, three, including two former presidents, withdrew from the race last week alone, the Associated Press reports, though Burundi’s electoral commission denies receiving the withdrawals.

Despite the many obstacles, President Nkurunziza and his party have pushed forward with the election, and he is expected to win even though he will run a deeply divided and wounded Burundi – one that  threatens further instability in the East African region.

"Despite a facade of pluralism, this is an election with only one candidate, where Burundians already know the outcome," Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group told Aljazeera English.

UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein told the Security Council this month that "the risk to human life, and to regional stability and development, is high."

Prosper Ntahorwamiye, the electoral commission spokesman, told the AP that a high turnout is expected among the 3.8 million registered voters. The United Nations Observer Mission to Burundi is on the ground to monitor Tuesday’s election, though the European Union removed its observer mission in May.

Attempts by the East African Community to intervene have largely failed. The exodus of civilians leaving Burundi – about 1,000 a day, according to the United Nations – has put pressure on neighboring countries like Tanzania and Rwanda that are taking them in and raised concerns in the region. The Monitor reported:

To the west of Burundi is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose eastern region is host to a plethora of armed groups and a largely permanent refugee population.To the north is a stable Rwanda, two decades out of its horrific genocide but under the heavy hand of President Paul Kagame.

And to the east is Tanzania, which does not face the same fragile ethnic tinderbox but is heading into a contentious election season amid a narrowing of the political space, a corruption scandal, and a growing Islamist militant threat on the coast, says Ms. Bouka.

“If you have a massive influx of refugees, you’re adding strain to an already tenuous situation,” she explains. Rwanda, which has received the bulk of the refugees,“has more than it can sustain for a long period of time.”

The refugee crisis could also create security problems, Vircoulon says, with hundreds of thousands of refugees dealing with food and aid shortages as well as the potential activation of rebel groups, like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group based in eastern DRC.

Rwanda’s foreign minister has already issued warnings amid allegations that the FDLR is finding a safe haven amid Burundi’s chaos. Though her comments sparked speculation that Rwanda was laying the groundwork for an intervention, analysts have dismissed the possibility of an imminent intervention because there has not yet been proof that the FDLR is in Burundi.

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