Burundi's Tense Election Campaign Sparks Fears of Further Violence

Evariste Ndayishimiye

Burundians are heading to the polls to elect a new president and parliament. The election campaign has been marred by deadly clashes. Experts have said that the vote stands no chance of being free and fair.

Burundi's election campaign, which ended on Sunday, left several dead and injured in clashes that broke out between members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party and the main opposition CNL party

Rallies took place amid the global coronavirus pandemic, raising accusations against the government of the outgoing president, Pierre Nkurunziza, of manhandling the COVID-19 crisis.

'Ready to die for his party'

The former Hutu rebel chief, who sparked deadly violence in 2015 by running for a third mandate after rewriting the constitution, announced in June that he would not be a candidate in 2020.

But hopes that this could herald the end of a repressive rule were dashed with the appointment of his party's candidate, retired army general, Evariste Ndayishimiye.

Ndayishimiye's appointment was a compromise between Nkurunziza and a small but powerful cabal of generals who control the levers of government, according to the Burundi Human Rights Initiative.

He was chosen because he was "faithful and ready to die for his party," said one CNDD-FDD official who wished to remain anonymous.

Repression and persecution

The president might have preferred someone he could control more directly after stepping down. But his candidate, national assembly leader Pascal Nyabenda, was rejected by the party.

Still, Ndayishimiye's choice ensures that no real changes will take place if he wins, which, at this point, seems likely.

"You've seen all of civil society being dismantled or having to flee into exile," said Stephanie Wolters, a researcher with the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA).

"You've seen a complete repression of the political media, you've seen repression of the opposition."

Eyes of the world shut out

Bujumbura announced a 14-day quarantine requirement for any any observers entering the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Coming from a government which has consistently downplayed the crisis at home, this can only be seen as a ploy to legitimize elections, which will certainly "not be free and fair," Wolters told DW.

Burundi's government also refused any electoral observers from the United Nations (UN) or the African Union (AU), accusing the latter of being too close to the opposition.

Call for dialogue

The UN and AU on Sunday issued a joint statement calling on authorities to ensure voters' safety.

It urged "all political actors to refrain from all acts of violence and hate speech, and resort to dialogue, to enable the holding of consensual and peaceful elections."

The tense situation in Burundi has raised fears that exacerbated tensions could lead to more violence during and after the election.

"According to the Burundian government, three people have been killed since the campaign started. It raises concerns about what may happen," one citizen told DW.

Others are nor ready to give up hope yet: "My expectations are, first of all, peaceful, transparent and democratic elections. My second expectation is a good and competent leader from those elections," said another.

That seems unlikely, as the country is turning into an international pariah.

Even before it expelled officials form the World Health Organization (WHO) last week, without giving any reason, repression and regressing democracy had led even Germany -- a country not known for to swift changes of policy -- to put Burundi on a list of counties which are to be excluded from receiving development aid.

An international pariah

The NGO Blue Code is among those calling for the elections to be postponed for a number of reasons, including suspicion that Ndayishimiye is complicit in alleged crimes against humanity that left 1,200 dead since 2015, and are currently being investigated by the UN and the International Criminal Court.

But as of yet, international pressure seems to have had little or no effect.

There is "a kind of Burundian patriotism that rejects any form of interference in the country's affairs," said Onesphore Sematumba from the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The policy of confrontation is part of a strategy of deliberate isolation which has helped Nkurunziza to maintain total control over the country's politics, he added.

No free and fair elections

Would the opposition led by Agathon Rwasa win a free and fair election?

While she does not like to speculate, Stephanie Wolters told DW: "I think there is obviously real desire to see Burundi change for the better."

Months of sustained anti-government demonstrations have shown that there is a significant popular opposition to the regime.

"The impact from the last five years have been catastrophic for Burundians," on all levels, from a surge in measles and malaria cases, to an economic downturn with loss of jobs and income, she said.

According to Wolters, while the party is ethnically dominated by the Hutu majority, the ethnic question in Burundi is not nearly as important to to people, as political parties might like to think it is.

"My guess is that people would not like to vote for a party which destroyed their livelihoods and made life miserable for them."

Apollinaire Niyirora and Antonio Cascais contributed to this article.

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