Burundi Elections: Great Hopes and Great Disappointments

Democratic elections have a profound significance that goes beyond the mere act of choosing leaders.  They are used to mark progress, strength, and international standing: much is contingent upon the outcome or implementation of elections, especially in developing countries.  The recent elections in Burundi, for example, were looked to as a sign of progress for this previously war-torn country.  The elections were to serve as a shining symbol of the country’s recovery from civil war and advancement as a democracy.  Such has not been the case, however, as cries of foul play, violence, and boycotts have plagued the election process practically from the start.  Burundi had much to gain from its elections, but without remediation it may stand to lose from them.

The presidential election that took place on June 28 was imbued with a special significance as a result of its being the first presidential vote since the country’s last armed groups laid down its weapons in 2009.  The peace process that ended the country’s bloody twelve-year civil war had seen a transformation as rebel groups became legitimate political parties.  The elections thus served as a first test of a fragile peace: Burundians, and others across the globe, hoped that the former rebel groups that now comprise Burundi’s political sphere could find satisfactory power-sharing through the democratic system as opposed to resorting to violent means.  The incumbent candidate, Pierre Nkurunziza, himself is a representative of one such rebel group-turned political party, while the leading opposition is also composed of former rebels.

Despite the pressure to carry out fair, successful elections, Burundi has seen nothing but contention since votes were cast in May for local council elections.  While incumbent Nkurunziza and his ruling party won 64 percent of the vote, many opposition candidates decried what they saw as a voting process riddled with flaws and corruption.  Detractors lodged many complaints regarding the election process: they claimed that there was a failure to protect ballot secrecy; that poll hours were unfairly irregular; and that there was a lack of day-to-day documentation from the polls.  Election monitoring committees agreed that some of these claims were grounded in the truth; however, European Union observers and others found no proof of fraud.  The opposition nevertheless opted for a boycott of the presidential election in June.  Opposition candidates refused to register for the elections, leaving Nkurunziza as the sole candidate, and voters were urged not to participate in elections.

The May elections also touched off a wave of violence reminiscent of the civil war period.  There were several grenade attacks on Bujumbura, the country’s capital, which caused eight deaths and 50 injuries.  Both President Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and opposition parties have been accused of being behind these attacks: CNDD-FDD claims that opposition parties used violence to keep voters away from the polls, while opposition members themselves accuse the dominant party of deliberately setting off grenades in order to blame, and then crack down on, their competition.  Indeed, in the days and weeks following the attacks many opposition members were arrested, while CNDD-FDD-controlled police officers broke up gatherings and harassed media groups.

There have been complaints of violent tactics throughout the electoral process.  Many opposition parties criticize the use of intimidation tactics, especially by youth arms.  Many political parties, including the CNDD-FDD and its competition, include groups of youths that have been used for intimidation and violence.  Youths and former combatants are trained to break up meetings and to harass both civil society and media groups.  The police have also played a role in hindering opposition groups: many CNDD-FDD officers have been known to ignore the violent acts of their party while harshly punishing opposition members for any retaliation or similar behavior.  These moves have been denounced both in Burundi and internationally.

The result of such a troublesome campaign period was a truly troublesome presidential election.  President Nkurunziza was indeed the sole candidate: Burundians were met with the choice of either voting to re-elect their president or having their votes annulled.  Such a choice can hardly inspire confidence among citizens who wish for their votes to count.  77 percent of eligible voters participated in the June 28 election that saw the re-election of President Nkurunziza.  Yet, devoid of a true choice, how many can one expect to participate in future elections?  Already we have seen a drop in voter turnout for the July 23 parliamentary elections, in which only 66% of eligible voters cast their ballots (President Nkurunziza’s party once again dominated, although several small opposition groups that had not boycotted the elections won a handful of seats).  It is true that perhaps this reduced turnout echoes the parliamentary elections’ lack of prestige in comparison to the presidential vote.  One must hope that it is not indicative of future voter apathy.

Some analysts fear that, if these trends continue, Burundi could very well fall into a state of authoritarianism and increased corruption.  Burundi’s constitution states that the government may be comprised of up to 40 percent Tutsis, while Hutus can make up no more than 60 percent.  The Hutu-dominated CNDD-FDD may not be able to meet this ethnicity requirement if opposition parties, including those comprised of Tutsis, continue to boycott government participation.  A long-lasting opposition boycott therefore has the potential to lead to a constitutional crisis when Hutus surpass the 60 percent mark.  Such a crisis period could offer President Nkurunziza the opportunity to solidify the power of CNDD-FDD.  In the absence of opposition, his Hutu-dominated party was already able to capture some of the senate and other government seats reserved for Tutsis: this will give CNDD-FDD control not only over the senate but also over the other branches of Burundi’s government.  This absence of checks and balances of power is worrying, as is the fear that Nkurunziza could become yet another power-grabbing African ruler.

Particularly troubling is the threat of returning warfare.  Violence is often an effect of elections in flourishing democracies, especially when certain groups are dissatisfied with the results.  One can see examples of such violence throughout Africa: it is also worth noting that Burundi’s civil war got underway soon after the country’s 1993 presidential elections, the first multiparty elections to be held following independence in 1962.  Burundi is still awash with small arms, leftovers from this period.  The recent grenade attacks have shown that some Burundians will not hesitate to use violence: there is thus an understandable concern that weapons will be picked up again, and that former rebels will once again turn to violence in the absence of alternatives.  Particularly worrying are the youth groups that have been trained by political parties on both sides of the election conflict.  Impressionable youths have already served as powerful weapons in terms of intimidation; who knows to what extent they will be utilized were violence to break out?

On a broader level, the success or failure of Burundi’s democratic system affects the developing nation’s relations with other, wealthier countries.  This is especially true when considering foreign aid and investments.  More than one half of Burundi’s gross domestic product is derived from foreign aid, while 68% of the population lives under the poverty line.  Needless to say, foreign funds are vital to Burundi’s economy.  Yet the inflow of these funds may be threatened by the country’s uneasy transition to democracy.  The lack of fair elections and the presence of violence may detract future or current investors.  Meanwhile, the implementation of fair elections, and with it a reduction in government corruption, could serve not only to attract more aid but also increase the country’s capacity to efficiently and effectively use that which it already receives. 

Despite the obvious flaws and malpractices committed by both dominant and opposition party members, one must not overlook the positive aspects of Burundi’s political situation.  Many diplomats and civil society groups maintain that Burundi has “true democratic credentials.”  It is true that the country has over 40 political parties, and multiparty politics are said to be “flourishing.”  While it is admittedly difficult to see how these parties are “flourishing” amidst violence and intimidation, at the very least the fact that these parties are able to exist signifies that there is something to be said for Burundi’s multi-party system.  In addition, Burundi’s independent media houses have been praised for their synchronized coverage of election events.  Seeds of hope for Burundian democracy exist, however small they may appear.

While it is too late to remedy Burundi’s 2010 elections, the IIJD avers that positive change can nevertheless be made in the country’s political situation.  Steps can be taken at all levels to ensure fairness, a decrease in violence, and a strengthening of the country’s democratic systems. 

  • President Nkurunziza and the dominant CNDD-FDD party must be persuaded to stop using their power to unfairly sway elections. 
  • Police forces must be de-politicized: training should be offered to ensure that violence and intimidation is stopped and justly prosecuted, no matter the political leanings of their source. 
  • Electoral observation bodies in Africa and elsewhere should monitor the activities of both dominant and opposition parties. 
  • These bodies should examine the complaints made by opposition parties concerning election fraud and help remedy those that are grounded in unfair practices. 
  • Political parties must reign in their youth wings in order to prevent any future campaign-based violence.

The political situation in Burundi does not exist in a vacuum: any violence or distress resulting from unfair governance is sure to spill into neighboring countries.  It is thus essential that Burundi ameliorates its political situation.  Burundi has the potential to help not only its citizens, but other Africans across the continent.  It has the possibility to serve as a symbol of successful African democracy: while Burundi has a long way to go to reach this goal, it is nevertheless possible through the enactment of just political and institutional reforms.