Burundians took a step toward ending the political upheaval that’s been a hallmark of Pierre Nkurunziza’s 15-year rule when they began voting in a presidential election on Wednesday.
The vote is taking place amid uncertainty over the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. A week ago, it expelled four World Health Organization’s officials after the health body questioned the wisdom of holding campaign rallies while the virus is still spreading.
The vote also comes after weeks of political violence. Campaigns pitting ruling-party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye against opposition leader Agathon Rwasa were marred by clashes in which dozens of people died. Groups including Amnesty International have blamed the unrest on the ruling party in its effort to hold onto power.
“The weeks leading up to the elections have been marked by human-rights violations including killings, beatings and arrests of opposition members,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty’s deputy director for East Africa. “The Burundian authorities must uphold human rights on election day and its aftermath, and take effective measures to protect voters from infection with Covid-19.”
There are 42 confirmed virus cases in Burundi. Campaign rallies were attended by thousands of people, increasing the risk of accelerating the spread of the virus.
Burundi, about the size of Vermont grows coffee and tea, the source of the bulk of its export revenue from sales to customers including Starbucks Corp. More than half of the nation’s 11 million people depend on coffee for their livelihood.
Ndayishimiye, a former army general, told thousands at a rally in Gitega province last month that he plans to expand agricultural output and create “many jobs.”
One of the world’s poorest countries, Burundi has become increasingly isolated because of Nkurunziza’s heavy-handed suppression of opposition to his rule.
In one such incident, the ruling party youth wing attacked opposition supporters last week in Karusi region, damaging their vehicles and campaign equipment, according to human rights activist Sake Mathieu. The opposition National Council for Liberty said that more than 400 of their members, including the party’s election observers, were arrested and detained on false accusations.
While Nkurunziza has ordered the police to uphold the law during the election, foreign observers have been prevented from monitoring the vote. The ballot is being funded by the state and mandatory contributions from the population.
“For Rwasa to win, elections will have to be free and fair, which seems unlikely,” according to Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. “Many of the ruling party’s political opponents have been kidnapped, harassed and tortured by security forces and the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing.”
While Nkurunziza will no longer be in control, he is expected to maintain some power should the ruling party win. He will receive a retirement payment and a salary, six cars, a house and the title of Paramount Leader.
Polling stations close at 4:00 p.m. and the provisional results of the vote are expected as early as May 25.