Yesterday, amid an ongoing political crisis and unrest, Burundians went to the polls to vote in the country’s contentious presidential election. While media reports that at least two people were killed the night before the polls opened, election day came and went without any major incidents. Similar to the recent legislative elections – particularly outside of the capital Bujumbura, which has been the epicenter of the protests – many Burundians still decided to cast their ballot. The national election commission, CENI, estimates that there was an approximately 74% participation rate. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there have been no major issues or violence in the lead-up to the polls – at least not enough to warrant renewed international attention – this election is bad news for Burundian democracy.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been fighting tooth and nail to run for what many perceive as an illegitimate third term, seems to have won his bid. Indeed, with talks between the Nkurunziza’s ruling party and the opposition breaking down – once again – over the weekend after the government negotiators failed to show up, the election is taking place on Nkurunziza’s terms. Even though they appear on the ballot, key opposition candidates have dropped out of the race, and analysts believe the results are a foregone conclusion. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the vote could anoint anyone other than Pierre Nkurunziza.
The crisis in Burundi is insidious. Even though the last few months have seen approximately 175,000 Burundians flee to neighboring countries, somehow, violence has not escalated to epic proportions – hundreds have been wounded and at least 70 people have been killed, but given the potential for a much larger, more violent conflict, it feels as though Burundi may have a dodged a bullet – for now. The assumption is that Nkurunziza will be declared the winner of the election, and it is difficult to predict how the opposition and the protesters will react, and in turn how the government – particularly the police – will respond, should further protests break out.
So far, the official government narrative has been to depict protesters as “terrorists”, framing the situation as one where the legitimate rulers of the country are being unfairly attacked by enemies of the state. This convenient portrayal has allowed the government to crackdown on protesters and their mouthpieces – most independent media in the country has been shuttered since the failed coup attempt in May.
The Burundian government, in spite of having won many of its battles leading up to the controversial election, will face isolation if (or, rather, when) it is announced that Nkurunziza won the election. The election went ahead without many of the East African Community and the African Union’s recommendations being realized, leaving Nkurunziza in a difficult situation vis-a-vis his regional counterparts. The EAC, in particular, has been attempting to play a mediation role since the crisis began earlier this year, but with very mixed results. As the smallest country in the regional body defies the will of the group, relations between Burundi and its neighbors will likely be negatively affected moving forward, particularly as the number of refugees fleeing Burundi continues to grow each day (MSF reports that 1,000 people are crossing from Burundi into Tanzania – each day.) The United States and the European Union have also expressed their concern and intimated the consequences of Nkurunziza victory – decreased financial support, and possible sanctions and/or travel bans against key leaders.
It is clear that the vote in Burundi took place in a climate that is antithetical to free and fair elections. UN electoral observers in Burundi said that the election took place in an atmosphere of “widespread fear and intimidation.” It also seems clear, at this point, that Nkurunziza is about to win his bid for a third term, which raises serious questions about the quality of democracy in that country. The election is being coopted, yet no one – inside or outside the country – seems to be able to stop it from happening. A defiant Nkurunziza will likely lead Burundi for another 5 years, giving him ample time to continue to undermine the – still young – democratic institutions that have helped buoy peace in Burundi for a decade. Burundians deserve better, but there is little hope left today that any other scenario will play out.