Only half way through the election calendar and so much seems to have gone wrong with the much talked about elections in Burundi. The process started on a high note when more than 3.5 million Burundians eligible to vote in communal elections were called to the 7,000 polling stations made available across the country. Voting was originally scheduled to commence on the 21st of May 2010, but was delayed until the 24th due to a shortage of ballot papers.
Election participation began well with a 91.7 percent turnout, but this positive outcome was short-lived. When election results became public the opposition parties cried foul, eventually resulting in a complete withdrawal of opposition candidates for the presidential elections, which took place on 28 June. The withdrawal of the opposition from the presidential elections resulted in a decline in voter turnout. Of the 76.9 percent of the population who voted, 90 percent voted for Nkurunziza thereby electing him for a further five year term.
This left the process in an impasse with still two rounds of elections to be completed: the Senator Polls on 28th July 2010; and the Hill Polls on 7th September 2010.
The boycott of the elections came as a surprise for most observers, diplomats and news agencies, especially considering the assessment of the EU election observer mission which was positive, stating it met international standards. The situation was further aggravated by political violence which escalated during the run-up to the presidential campaign on the 12th of June 2010.
During the period of violence there were more than 100 grenade attacks, arson attacks on at least 35 local offices of the ruling party and two ruling party activists as well as an opposition activist were killed. While the ruling party has been the target of grenade and arson attacks, the opposition has suffered arrests and restrictions on their movement. Burundi is at risk of civil disobedience which could result in serious social unrest stemming from the degree of voter frustration caused during the local elections. The worst case scenario would be a rebellion on state institutions caused by opposition parties.
The rebellion scenario is most likely in opposition strongholds such as Bujumbura and Bururi. "Burundi is at a dangerous crossroads and clearly ill-intentioned people on both sides of the political divide are seeking to exploit recent tensions," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should end unnecessary restrictions on basic freedoms, and those fomenting violence should stop."
The conclusion is that the international community, and more specifically regional organizations, must act as a matter of urgency. International failure to act in this situation will result in years of successful peace negotiations being severely damaged and even destroyed. At this point it is pertinent to ask what has happened to the Great Lakes Initiative, the Partnership for Peace in Burundi, and South African and Tanzanian initiatives which played a key role in brining peace to Burundi.
It is clear that two possible scenarios can play out: the first, and most likely scenario, is that the Government will continue to complete the election calendar without the major opposition parties participating. Only UPRONA has decided to rejoin the parliamentary election process, but it is probable that other parties will follow suit due to the financial implications incurred by individual MPs. If this situation continues it will have a detrimental effect on the quality of democracy in Burundi. Worryingly, this option could see more human rights abuses and restrictions on the media and NGO's.
The second scenario could see the gradual deterioration of the political arena and renewed eruptions of (large-scale) violence. Should opposition parties or political factions perceive the political (non-violent) competition as meaningless there is likely to be an increasing number of their constituencies becoming more receptive to initiatives outside of the political arena. What we might observe then is the reformation and realignment in new interest groups or rebel movements that could return Burundi to a country characterised by widespread violence and even a new rebellion.
The United Nations, the African Union and the East African Community (EAC) as well as countries such as South Africa and Tanzania have all made statements asking the Government and opposition to resolve their problems and for the opposition to return to the electoral process. What is needed at present is a regional orginisation such as the EAC to intervene by mediating between the government and the opposition parties. It is essential to address the concerns of the opposition regarding the electoral process and more specifically the claims of electoral fraud during the Communal elections as well as the Government's use of state instruments to intimidate opposition parties, arrest opposing political leaders and hamper freedom of speech (to highlight but a few). South Africa - who is reluctant to intervene bilaterally - might consider getting involved with an EAC intervention for example in order to try and get the electoral process back on track.
Written by: Henri Boshoff, head Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria