Whither democracy in Burundi?

I’m personally bummed about the election debacle in Burundi. As I was flying from Cameroon to Nairobi, the opposition parties pulled out of the upcoming presidential election, dashing my dreams of an article that went something like, “The little country you’ve never heard of may be Africa’s best case study in democracy.”

Everyone was excited about Burundi’s elections. Though there was some violence and intimidation leading up to the first poll in May, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, or even as some of the bigger pessimists thought. And on May 24, when Burundians cast votes in local polls, I am told by multiple people (and in similar language) that there were “some irregularities” but there didn’t seem to be “massive fraud.”

That’s not what the opposition says. One opposition leader told me the government had cheated the opposition out of poll observers. Another opposition guy told IPS that ballot boxes were switched during a sudden power outage at the end of polling day. Yes, there were irregularities, according to elections observers and the EU. But massive fraud? The EU and others say the claim needs proof. The independent election commission still hasn’t released a final report, though its preliminary numbers give the ruling party 64 percent of the vote.

Now, the opposition is doing a kind of reverse campaigning — going to the countryside and urging people to boycott what they say will be a sham election. Or at least, that’s what they’re trying to do. But they keep getting intercepted by government forces. Last week, they were turned away from Ngozi. So before they set out for Rugembe, they spread a rumor that they were going to demonstrate during Ban Ki Moon’s visit. The idea was to distract the police so they could get to Rugembe and give some speeches; it didn’t work, and they were sent back again.

Or so I’m told. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction around here. Unless things are done at press conferences, like when the Minister of the Interior — whom the opposition alleges really controls the “independent” electoral commission — decreed that anyone not running for president can’t campaign any more.

But the presidential election isn’t the last one. Burundians will vote July, in two separate votes, for senators and parliamentarians, and in September for local-level leaders. No one quite understands yet if the opposition is boycotting those elections too — or, conversely, if the Minister of Interior has just subtly ensured that no one but the ruling party is in the forefront of people’s minds leading into the late July polls.

Stay tuned.

1 Comment

  • Ian says:

    I agree. I was bummed as well when the opposition pulled out of the Sudanese elections. Everyone knew the election was a joke, but by leaving the election they gave Bashir more credibility. If the MDC had always boycotted, then change (what little there has been) might not have come to Zimbabwe.

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