Why the election in Burundi needs a longer postponement

Boys sit on a barricade which was built during a protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term, in Bujumbura, Burundi yesterday. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Burundi is simply not ready for elections given the prevailing security situation.

The decision to postpone the local and parliamentary polls by a week was taken against the backdrop of violence and an attempted coup. But there is a third poll, the high-stakes presidential election, which is still scheduled for June 26.

A week’s delay of only part of the voting process is not enough. Postponing the parliamentary elections only, even if it was for a longer period, would be insignificant and inadequate in resolving the current political crisis in Burundi.

Power lies in the presidency

The parliamentary election will not bring about a regime or party change in terms of the Burundi constitution, a product of the Arusha agreement, that ended the Burundi civil war of 1993-2005.

Under the constitution the parliament enacts legislation and “controls the action of the government.” On paper it also has the power to impeach the President of the Republic in case of high treason by a resolution taken by two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly and of the Senate (Article 163).

But parliament has never exercised the full powers vested in it. Rather, the president has held sway.

Executive power vests in the president. The constitution limits the presidential term to a single five yearly term, renewable for one further term.

The current round of violence has been sparked by disagreements between the opposition and the president around whether he is running for the second and last term as president. He claims that he is not running for a third term as he was not elected by a popular vote in 2005, but was elected by parliament. He was re-elected president in 2010 through direct suffrage in an election boycotted by the opposition.

Incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza should heed the calls of other African leaders, including Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and wait for a return to calm before pressing ahead with any of the polls, particularly the presidential poll.

What needs to be in place

Preparations for any elections fit neatly into three phases: pre-election, election day and post-election.

In the pre-election phase the electoral body makes sure that electoral officials have been trained, plans are well laid, equipment has been checked and systems tested.

This is normally done in consultation with political parties, government and civil society organisations. The idea is to ensure that the mood is right for free and fair, credible and internationally accepted elections.

Before the outbreak of the May 2015 violence Burundi’s Independent National Electoral Commission was involved in the pre-election phase.

This included developing the voters’ roll or register, party registration and identification of voting stations in line with the country’s electoral laws and constitution.

But the electoral commission baulked at moving to the second stage of the process, the actual election. It is not difficult to understand why. The context presented serious challenges for the commission.

Elections in Africa are meant to comply with regulations set down by the African Union as well as regional communities such as Southern African Development Community. These include the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, African Union Declaration on Principles Governing Democratic Elections and the NEPAD Declaration on Democracy, Political, Economic and Corporate Governance.

Regional fallout

These regulations emphasise the need for free and fair elections and underscore the importance of ensuring that conditions are conducive for a democratic poll.

They are also important because events in one country can have a dramatic impact on its neighbours.

The political instability and pre-election violence in Burundi has affected countries in the region, both directly and indirectly. More than 100 000 have fled, mostly to Tanzania. The fallout has triggered humanitarian, economic and security crises, seriously challenging the capacity of the African Union, United Nations and regional economic communities.

This has catastrophic implications for peace, development, democratisation and overall security in the Great Lakes region.

It is against this backdrop that postponing the entire elections, including the high-stakes presidential election set for June 26, would be a good step towards avoiding further conflict and bloodshed. Burundi cannot afford a repeat of the ethnically driven civil war in 1993 between the Hutu majority and and Tutsi minority that claimed 300 000 lives.

Conditions are still not conducive for free and fair elections given Nkurunziza’s machinations to cling to power and the subsequent violence.

Postponing the polls by only a week is cynical and betrays the emptiness of Nkurunziza’s professed commitment to averting more bloodshed. He should heed the counsel of his peers and the world and postpone the elections indefinitely. Then he should take the lead in returning the country to peace so that the people of Burundi can freely choose a government they want to run the country.