Burundi: another electoral façade?

Published: 21 Jul 2015
By: Lucy Hovil

In Burundi, the disconnect between the mechanisms of democracy and its application could not be more stark. The government seems to be taking the approach that as long as elections are formally held then its legitimacy to hold onto the reins of power will be affirmed. Multiple opposition groups, not surprisingly, strongly dispute this approach and are openly protesting. Meanwhile the majority of Burundians are once again forced into the role of bystanders in a political farce in which a few powerful leaders continue to hold most of the cards.

Over the past weeks, President Nkurunziza’s strategy seems to have been to give small concessions – delaying each round of elections by a few days as opposed to the months that would have been necessary to effect any real change in the enabling environment for elections. Thus, from the perspective of the ruling Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD), the communal and parliamentary elections that took place on 29 June have not only confirmed their position in government, but have strengthened it, winning an overwhelming 77 out of a possible 100 seats in the National Assembly. Their position has seemingly been validated by the constitutional court’s affirmation that the parliamentary elections fulfilled the necessary legal requirements. In addition, the new communal councils in the communes met on Sunday 19 July to elect communal administrators and council presidents (most of whom are likely to be members of the CNDD-FDD), further entrenching the outcome despite the oppositions’ insistence that the entire process is illegitimate.

In order to try and address some of these many deficiencies prior to the Presidential elections due to take place today, a 3rd EAC Emergency Summit held on 6 July appointed Uganda’s President Museveni to mediate talks between Burundi’s government and opposition groups. Yet even as these negotiations are taking place, Nkurunziza has decided to move ahead with Presidential elections – despite the fact that the main issue under discussion was the opposition demand to reset the electoral calendar and to invalidate the outcome of the communal and parliamentary elections. Nkurunziza seems to believe that if it looks like democracy, then it will be accepted as such, despite the strong contestation of this assertion by international actors, the internal opposition and the further unravelling of this façade demonstrated by the armed fighting that took place in northern Burundi on 10 July.

As a result, today Burundians have been invited to vote for their president in a context where three candidates have already withdrawn from the process, including one of the strongest contenders, Agathon Rwasa, who, though formally still on the ballot, appears to be boycotting the elections. Nkurunziza looks like he will be heading for an easy win at the polls. And just to entrench his place further, senatorial elections are due to take place on the 25 July, with most of the seats expected to once more be taken over by CNDD-FDD as those who will vote are members of the communal council – who are, as a result of the July 19 elections, mostly members of the CNDD-FDD party. This electoral stitch-up seems to know no bounds.

So what is the alternative? A number of opposition figures including those who “rebelled” from the presidential party have formed the National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord. While it is still hard to establish whether or not there is a link between this group and those who decided to take up arms (despite much speculation), what is clear is that the decision by a number of opposition members to join the group has led to the suspension of Museveni’s current dialogue initiative. On Sunday 19 July, the talks ground to a halt, and it is unclear whether or not they will continue.

Little is known about the current internal mechanisms and configurations of the opposition – or rather, multiple opposition groups. A senior member of one of the opposition parties, the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), in an interview with a member of civil society on 17 July emphasised the harmful way in which the election process is being used: “The outcome of these elections cannot help our country move forward. Since 2010, some political actors have not had their security assured, including those from my party. Some have been killed, some have been imprisoned and others have had to flee the country. In such a situation, the outcome of the elections becomes part of the problem that this country will have to deal with.” He went on to deny that Amizero y’Abarundi (the coalition of independent parties, mainly FNL and UPRONA) had properly participated in the parliamentary and communal elections despite the fact that the Electoral Commission had claimed that their coalition had come second: “We did not participate. Those who went to vote did so to save their lives. This explains why we were listed as having come second in the elections… But we see this as an effort to legitimise these elections.”

Not surprisingly, he then went on to characterise the presidential elections as “a fake process”. When asked if they will let the elections go ahead and then wait until the next elections in five years’ time, he answered, “No, we will not be on the waiting bench. We have negotiations going on. We all need peace and we will all have to agree to have free and fair elections. The government may try to resist but I believe that they also need peace. We have had other previous governments in Burundi that were not ready to give power away but they were convinced to do so against their wish. This government has no option but to listen to others and organise legitimate elections.”

For him, the ingredients of a legitimate election are genuine security for all those who vote, transparent electoral governance and processes, free speech, and international electoral monitoring. Most of all, it would not include the current president standing for a third term.

When asked what their plan would be if a legitimate election does not take place, he replied: “The President and his party would have shown that they are not interested in the welfare of our country and all the Burundians. This will be the end of democracy and I guess this will mean the starting point of another struggle. My fear is that this struggle might lead the country into another war. So far, and this is my wish, we have no reason to think like that the current negotiations will be in vain. We will strike a deal that will benefit everybody. I hope we will not go to war against each other; use of weapons is a very cheap argument in democracy.” In the meantime, opposition members such as himself are living in fear, with their security deteriorating every day. Members of Amizero y’Abarundi are being arrested on a regular basis, accused of participating in rebel activity despite the fact that, as the interviewee emphasised, “we have renounced war and ours is a political struggle for a free society; nothing more.”

Whether that will remain the case, and for how long, remains to be seen. Which leaves the majority of Burundians caught between a president who is wielding elections as a weapon to hold onto power against an opposition that is increasingly frustrated at its lack of progress in advancing its position. The very idea of democracy seems to have been taken off the agenda a long time ago.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Justice and Accountability
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi
Type: IRRI Blog