An Essential Primer on Burundi's Elections
An Essential Primer on Burundi's Elections
A supporter of the ruling party the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) attends the opening of the campaign in Gitega, central Burundi, on April 27, 2020, ahead of elections
A supporter of the ruling party the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) attends the opening of the campaign in Gitega, central Burundi, on 27 April 2020. Tchandrou Nitanga / AFP
Q&A / Africa 11 minutes

An Essential Primer on Burundi's Elections

On 20 May, Burundians will elect a new president, future members of parliament and municipal councillors, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In this Q&A, Crisis Group looks at the various scenarios for the polls and the challenges that will face whoever prevails.

What is the political backdrop to these elections?

Burundi’s elections set for 20 May are expected to deliver a new president. The fifteen-year incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, is not running, thereby making way for Évariste Ndayishimiye as the ruling-party candidate. Few Burundians, however, expect a fair election, and many expect violent contestation of the results. In the last year, the government has stepped up its campaign of repression, deploying security forces and the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth militia to crack down on the political opposition. The resulting climate of fear and resentment has been compounded by a prolonged economic crisis and a government-imposed system of forced contributions, which was ostensibly set up to finance the elections but is widely understood to have funded the Imbonerakure.

With popular frustrations running high, and opposition leader Agathon Rwasa warning that he will not accept a “stolen” election, fears are mounting that a contested poll could lead to violence along the lines of what the country saw in 2015, when Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term prompted street protests, a failed coup, a crackdown and the exodus of over 400,000 people. Further violence in Burundi could also contribute to instability in the Great Lakes region, which is already beset by tensions among neighbours, armed group activity and proxy violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Few Burundians expect a fair election and many expect violent contestation of the results.

Since 2015, Nkurunziza has walled the country off from scrutiny, and the government has rejected outside intervention in managing the elections. In 2019, an inter-Burundian dialogue, mediated by the East African Community (EAC) regional bloc collapsed with no agreement between the government and opposition figures (many of whom have been exiled) on what would constitute a minimum acceptable standard for the opening of political space in the country. Independent international and national media and civil society have also been heavily stifled through travel restrictions, licence suspensions and other measures.

The African Union, meanwhile, has been able to deploy only a small portion of the 200 human rights and military monitors Nkurunziza agreed to accept in 2016. It now also appears that the EAC will be unable to send an observation team in time for the elections; Burundi’s authorities have cited the COVID-19 outbreak as a reason to quarantine the observers for fourteen days upon arrival, though it is unclear whether the decision was genuinely made for legitimate public health reasons, given that the government has otherwise played down the outbreak. A credible external assessment of the fairness of the election is therefore unlikely to materialise.

Who are the main presidential candidates?

Seven presidential candidates will participate in the first round of the elections. Ruling-party nominee Ndayishimiye and long-time opposition leader Rwasa, who both fought as rebels in Burundi’s 1993-2005 civil war, are the clear front runners, and emblematic of the former fighters’ continued influence in national politics. While Ndayishimiye presents himself as Nkurunziza’s natural successor, and Rwasa advances his identity as a candidate for change, in reality the differences are not so stark, with both men promising Burundians to implement programs that mostly prioritise economic development.

Ndayishimiye has a solid footing in the ruling apparatus and commands the respect of many army generals, especially those with whom he served as a former rebel. Indeed, he was one of the main military leaders of the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) when it was a Hutu-dominated rebel group, and before it became what is now the ruling political party. Subsequently, during Nkurunziza’s fifteen years as president, Ndayishimiye held various government positions, rising to the position of CNDD-FDD secretary general. He became the party’s presidential candidate in January this year.

Diplomats and CNDD-FDD insiders told Crisis Group that Ndayishimiye was not the president’s initial choice to fill his shoes. They say Nkurunziza, who pushed for the selection of his ally Pascal Nyabenda, the president of the National Assembly (the lower chamber of Burundi’s parliament), only agreed to Ndayishimiye’s candidacy after intense lobbying by generals.

For his part, Rwasa led the Hutu rebel movement Paliphehutu-FNL during the war, and after signing a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2006, registered it as a political party in 2009. In 2015, the former rebel leader became the chosen presidential candidate for an opposition coalition. Although he then called for a boycott of the polls to protest Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office, Rwasa kept his coalition on the ballot and won 11 per cent of the vote, securing 21 parliamentary seats. Resigning himself to Nkurunziza’s victory, he then accepted the National Assembly’s vice presidency in 2015, much to the chagrin of some of his supporters and other opposition figures who felt he had sold out. In February 2019, he formed his current party, the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL), which he is now leading as he goes to the polls.

Both men kicked off their campaigns on 27 April. Ndayishimiye initiated his campaign in Gitega, the country’s new political capital, which is situated in his stronghold, Gitega province. He was accompanied by Nkurunziza. Rwasa started his campaign in his native town of Ngozi in northern Burundi.

The campaign officially ended on 17 May, and on 20 May the first round of the presidential election will be combined with parliamentary and municipal polls. The electoral commission is expected to announce the results a week later. If no presidential candidate secures a 50 per cent majority, a second round will be organised within fifteen days. According to the country’s electoral law, the constitutional court will proclaim the final results.

How has COVID-19 affected the electoral playing field?

Burundi announced in early April that the COVID-19 pandemic would not stop its national elections from going ahead. Unlike its Great Lakes neighbours Uganda and Rwanda, Burundi has maintained virtually no restriction on public movement within the country, a policy that has permitted large crowds to gather in stadiums and on the streets during the campaign. Nkurunziza’s spokesman has said that Burundi is under divine protection, which will contain the spread of the virus, and the authorities have provided limited information to the public on how to protect themselves from the disease. The virus has barely been mentioned by the two main candidates in their political speeches.

Notwithstanding the absence of measures to deal with the pandemic, Burundi so far appears to have been spared the brunt of the disease, although the limited availability of testing makes it difficult to get a full picture. According to its health ministry, the country has as of this writing reported 42 cases, one death and twenty recoveries.

COVID-19 has allowed the government to enact measures that appear to work in its favour politically.

COVID-19 has, however, allowed the government to enact measures that appear to work in its favour politically. On 15 April, Burundi’s foreign ministry cancelled preparations to allow the Burundian diaspora – who are generally closer to opposition parties – to vote, disenfranchising 12,933 registered voters abroad. The ministry argued that the electoral commission did not have the capacity to organise elections in Burundian embassies abroad given the various restrictions faced in those countries. As noted above, on 10 May the authorities stated that twenty incoming EAC observers would be subject to a fourteen-day quarantine because of the virus, basically disqualifying them from monitoring the polls. At the same time, for reasons that are still unclear, the government has also expelled the World Health Organization’s team responsible for supporting Burundi in its response against COVID-19, obliging its officials to leave the country.

In theory, President Nkurunziza could also still decide on a last-minute suspension of the election, using the virus as an excuse to prolong his rule. Article 116 of Burundi’s constitution allows the president to declare a state of emergency, which would afford him sweeping powers to “take all the measures demanded by the circumstances”.

What are the possible scenarios if the elections go forward?

The run-up to elections has already been marred by various forms of violence, which could escalate if the outcome is disputed.

In the last year, security services and the Imbonerakure have repeatedly cracked down on the opposition, many of whose members have been intimidated, arbitrarily arrested, killed or disappeared, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. Ongoing repression of the opposition and a surge in clashes between supporters and opponents of the ruling party in recent weeks have contributed further to a tense atmosphere as election day has approached.

Meanwhile, CNL and CNDD-FDD figures remain separately convinced that their own parties will win the elections, positions that will almost certainly lead to some kind of dispute once results are declared. While Rwasa has announced that he will not allow the election to be “stolen”, CNDD-FDD officials believe that their party structures and ability to register and mobilise voters across the country cannot but deliver victory. As one senior African diplomat with deep knowledge of the country told Crisis Group, “the CNDD-FDD spent the last five years campaigning, not governing”. It has a strong chance of winning, not necessarily due to its popularity, but because its extensive political machinery gives it such an advantage over the opposition.

Even if the ruling party loses, the lack of credible external observation leaves open the possibility of manipulation of the results. One former CNDD-FDD insider told Crisis Group that “if the CNDD-FDD loses, it will manage otherwise”, suggesting that the party might even rig the vote.

Despite opposition groups facing heavy repression, Rwasa and the CNL still command enough loyalty to call protesters out on to the streets, if they want to provoke a scenario similar to 2015. That would be a risky gambit with potentially very high costs. Nkurunziza has already stated that he will not tolerate a call for violence during these elections. “Clear orders have been issued to law enforcement, the military and the intelligence services”, he said. Whether or not Rwasa goes ahead with protests might also partly depend on whether he can be satisfied through the offer of another government post, for example another senior position in parliament. Some diplomats point to Rwasa’s rise to the National Assembly’s vice presidency after the 2015 elections, just five years after he had gone into hiding after being accused by the authorities of destabilising the country; they suggest that this might be a precedent for what comes next. Unlike the CNL, other opposition parties are unlikely to be able to muster street protests, because they lack a mass following as many of their members fled the country in 2015.

Sources in the region, including a top diplomat, an observer who frequently meets CNDD-FDD officials and a top government official, have told Crisis Group that they worry the main threat to stability might not come from Rwasa mounting a challenge to the election results, but rather from Nkurunziza. They fear that the incumbent, who still commands overwhelming loyalty within the Imbonerakure, may declare a state of emergency to cling to power by suspending the elections or declining to step down on schedule, an act that could divide the CNDD-FDD and cause splits within the security services between Nkurunziza’s backers and those who support Ndayishimiye.

What should be the main priorities for any new president?

On 21 August, if all goes according to schedule, President Nkurunziza will step down and his successor will start his first seven-year term, inheriting a deeply impoverished and bitterly divided country. The new president will face many challenges to overcome if he is to succeed in healing the nation’s wounds. Four challenges in particular will be critical in determining whether he can secure a measure of peace, safety and stability for Burundi.

The new president will face many challenges to overcome if he is to succeed in healing the nation’s wounds.

First, the new president, be it Ndayishimiye or Rwasa, will have to consolidate his own power. If Ndayishimiye wins, he will have to balance both Nkurunziza, taking into account the latter’s reported reticence about picking him as the ruling-party candidate, and the CNDD-FDD generals that backed his candidacy in January. With the rank of supreme guide of patriotism and president of the CNDD-FDD’s Conseil des Sages, Nkurunziza will be above Ndayishimiye within the party and will thus remain influential. If Rwasa is elected, he will have to ensure that he can retain the loyalty of the military and intelligence services, which are heavily comprised of CNDD-FDD partisans.

Secondly, the new president will have to work quickly to revive Burundi’s creaking economy. Investor confidence was shattered after the 2015 political crisis and the standard of living across the country has slipped noticeably since then. The new president will need to re-engage with international financial institutions and donors, including the country’s traditional Western allies, and discuss ways to improve the country’s dire economic situation. Ndayishimiye has already indicated a desire to bring Burundi out of its relative isolation among international partners, many of whom are willing to support Burundi so long as Nkurunziza leaves power. Rwasa, meanwhile, has also emphasised attracting foreign investment. Renewed economic engagement by international partners should be matched by continuing pressure to open up the political space, end human rights violations, and allow refugees and expatriates to return safely.

Thirdly, the new president should work to improve regional security by resolving differences with its neighbour Rwanda. Relations between the two countries degenerated in 2015 with Burundi accusing its northern neighbour of backing army officers involved in the failed 2015 putsch against Nkurunziza. During this time, Rwandan officials pointed to Burundi’s tight relationship with Rwandan rebels. For now, tensions between the two countries remain high, with Nkurunziza accusing Kigali of backing an armed group attack on a Burundian military position in November 2019, leaving at least eight soldiers dead and dozens missing. Rwanda has denied this claim, as well as Burundi’s allegation that it is supporting RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Notwithstanding years of traded accusations, however, officials of the two countries have at least remained in contact to discuss how to mitigate the cross-border spread of COVID-19.

Finally, the new president should turn his attention to public health. While Burundi appears to have been fortunate thus far in avoiding a major outbreak of COVID-19, there is no guarantee that this will last – and no certainty that current data is accurate. Mass gatherings during the electoral campaign, along with unimpeded internal travel on election day and thereafter, could result in a spike in coronavirus cases. If there is an outbreak for this or any other reason, the new president will have an enormous challenge on his hands. Burundi’s poor health system with limited intensive care beds and ventilators will not be able to deal with a high number of cases, potentially forcing the new president to restore ties with international and regional partners and ask for assistance even faster than anticipated. Rather than wait for the worst to happen, the new president should begin reaching out to international donors for immediate help in developing testing and other key capacities needed to detect, track and respond to the disease.

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