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Burundi elections: what’s at stake and what to expect

President Pierre Nkurunziza campaigning for the presidency in 2015. Spencer Platt/GettyImages

On 20 May 2020, Burundians head to the polls to elect a new president. Incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza has promised to step aside after 15 years in office. The ruling party has selected an army general, Evariste Ndayishimiye, as its candidate.

Nkurunziza’s election in 2015 was controversial. It triggered a failed military coup d'etat and a crackdown on opposition. Many journalists and human rights defenders went into exile.

Three years later in 2018 he announced that he would not stand for re-election.

It’s 15 years since Burundi emerged from a 12-year civil war between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Initially the peace agreement reached between the two groups was hailed as a success. But in the intervening years the country has experienced deterioration in both human rights and economic conditions.

Most observers expect Nkurunziza will peacefully relinquish office after the 2020 poll. But it is unlikely to spell the end of social, political, and economic instability.

While the ruling party remains in power, the expectation is that there will be a further tightening of authoritarian rule and declining living conditions. The ruling party is determined to safeguard its hold on power, even at the cost of a collapsing social order.

Nkurunziza’s legacy

Nkurunziza, a Hutu former rebel leader, was elected by parliament as the president at the end of the 1993-2005 Burundi civil war between Hutu and Tutsi forces. He served a second term in 2010 after re-election by popular vote.

Burundi’s democracy index shows that Nkurunziza and the ruling party (the National Council for the Defence of Democracy–Forces for the Defence of Democracy) became gradually more authoritarian over time, increasingly involved in intimidation of political opponents, electoral fraud and human rights violations.

The constitution of Burundi initially set a two-term presidential limit. But in April 2015, Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term in office. He based this on a disputed interpretation of the constitution. The country’s high court eventually backed the decision.

Burundi was plunged into political and economic crisis. This was accompanied by increasing authoritarianism in 2015. The subsequent abortive coup and anti-Nkurunziza protests led to violent clashes with the government. Independent media were shut down and many political opponents joined an exodus of over 350,000 Burundians to neighbouring countries.

Amid low voter turnout, Nkurunziza won a third five-year term with about 70% of the vote.

Read more: Beyond political violence in Burundi: an economy in crisis

The end of an era

Nkurunziza’s third term has been marked by heightened authoritarianism and repression, shown by further declines in the democracy index since 2015. In 2019, a UN commission accused the government of orchestrating widespread human rights abuses, including forced recruitment into the ruling party, extortion of goods and funds, executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and sexual violence.

Many of the atrocities were committed by the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure.

The government has muzzled the press and other critics, notoriously banning the BBC for documenting these atrocities. Burundi also became the first country in the world to leave the International Criminal Court.

In May 2018, constitutional amendments allowing Nkurunziza to hold office until 2034 were passed in a referendum tainted by intimidation and fraud. It also concentrated power in the presidency.

Despite this, there are strong incentives for Nkurunziza to step down. Not least, he will receive a series of perks. Burundi’s parliament passed legislation for a presidential retirement package that will see Nkurunziza receive a lump-sum of $530,000, a luxury villa, a salary for the rest of his life, and the title of “Paramount Leader”.

Nkurunziza leaves Burundi isolated and at a precipice. He has alienated the African Union and the United Nations by rejecting special envoys and forbidding human rights investigators from working freely in the country.

What next?

Six candidates have registered for the presidential elections. But the ruling party’s Evariste Ndayishimiye is the near-certain victor following years of the party’s repression and intimidation of political opposition.

Ndayishimiye is already an influential politician. He is the ruling party’s secretary-general, previously served as minister of interior and security, and acted as a key signatory in the Arusha peace settlement that brought the civil war to an end.

But Ndayishimiye is unlikely to open space for political opposition, civil society, and the media. Instead, the ruling party is expected to push for reforms that consolidate a gradual de facto transition to a one-party system.

Agathon Rwasa, a candidate for the National Freedom Council, is the main challenger. A former leader of Hutu rebel group the National Liberation Forces, Rwasa is better known to the electorate than Ndayishimiye, having served as perennial figure in previous elections.

The ethnic question

There are fears that the upcoming election could reignite old Hutu-Tutsi tensions. But set against the broader picture of Burundi’s transition from civil war, the likelihood of large-scale ethnic violence is low.

Burundi’s civil war came to an end through a negotiated settlement that re-engineered state institutions on the basis of ethnic power-sharing across political and military positions. Political parties formed that were not divided along ethnic lines. Indeed, the main adversaries at present are warring Hutu-dominated political groups.

Read more: Burundi edges closer to the abyss in 2016

The power sharing system has been extremely resilient. For example, political opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term transcended ethnic boundaries. Throughout, the military did not divide along ethnic lines. Even the coup plotters included both Hutu and Tutsi members.

The Imbonerakure and the constitutional changes represent a risk to this system, but it is not clear to what extent. The Imbonerakure are not subject to the ethnic quota requirements, so are primarily recruiting ethnic Hutu. Yet both Hutu and Tutsi are suffering from their violence.

Constitutional changes neutered the vice-presidency, typically held by a Tutsi. But ethnic quotas stating government and parliament must be made up of 60% Hutu and 40% Tutsi were maintained. They were also extended to the judiciary.

Adversarial politics and hegemonic power

Violence based on political partisanship is likely to continue. The ruling party will further tighten political space in an attempt to future-proof its grip on power. Façade elections will be held, rigged so that the ruling party wins. And political opposition will face the threat or actuality of violence.

The ruling party may retain power for several years in this fashion. But in the long term it will have to put in place strategies for cementing its power if it is to avoid persistent bouts of destabilising social unrest. It will need to win the hearts and minds of Burundians so that they come to accept that there is no alternative.

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