Burundi Elects New President Amid Concerns Over Election Integrity

Evariste Ndayishimiye, candidate for the governing Burundian party CNDD-FDD, was declared the winner of Burundi’s May 20th election by the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI). Ndayishimiye campaigned to “fight poverty and develop the country” and received approximately 67% of the vote while his opponent, Agathon Rwasa of the National Freedom Council (CNL), received just 24%. Seven candidates were in the race; Ndayishimiye secured an absolute majority in the first round, thereby avoiding a runoff. Elections were held amidst the Coronavirus crisis, though the Burundi government has been criticized for downplaying the public health threat posed by the pandemic. Officials have claimed divine protection and pointing to the seemingly low infection rate as reason to carry on as normal.

Burundi has had at least 42 cases of COVID-19 and one death as of Monday, May 25th. However, officials informed foreign election observers that they must quarantine for 14 days following their arrival, discouraging external auditing of the election. The CNL has voiced its strong opposition towards the election results and will file a claim in court to challenge the result. In addition to concerns over repression of the media and opposition groups and detainment of electoral observers, the CNL has pointed to particular empirical discrepancies possibly indicating election fraud. For example, according to a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP), Mr. Ndayishimiye received 99.9% of the vote in the Musigati commune (west), where the turnout rate was calculated at over 102%. AFP reports that numerous witnesses and journalists confirmed the validity of these discrepancies. CNL claims that the election outcome is “not credible” and “fabricated and stemming from a massive fraud.” The opposition claims to have won the election with approximately 58% of the vote – a substantial discrepancy with the soon-to-be-confirmed election results. Further investigation into potential electoral fraud must be a priority to ensure the integrity of free and fair democratic elections.

Despite serious concerns over the integrity of the election, the international community has signaled it will accept and support the election results, set to be certified by the Constitutional Court on June 4. Ndayishimiye’s term will last seven years. The East African Community expressed its support, remarking in a statement, “The 2020 Burundi elections hold an iconic place in the history of [Burundi], marking this as the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power […] [and] not only be a big win for the people of Burundi, but for the East African Community as a region.” Other bodies offered more tempered support. Nelleke van de Walle, Deputy Project Director the International Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project, acknowledged “certain elements of a real election” but re-affirmed that the election did not uphold freedom of expression. Burundi’s former colonial power, Belgium, remains willing to accept the election results for the sake of improving conditions that have worsened in recent years. Still, others are not so quick to praise the process. According to David Otto, a consultant at Global Risk Assessment and quoted in Al Jazeera, “Some of the Burundians do not see this as a democratic transfer of power,” raising concerns that some believe power has “just been given to General Evariste Ndayishimiye.” Human rights groups have also condemned conditions leading up to the elections. Rachel Nicholson, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera “There were continued reports of killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and disappearances of opposition members,” as well as social media censorship on election day.

The election comes after the 15-year term by Ndayishimiye’s predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, last elected in 2015 and which led to a failed coup attempt with over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands fleeing Burundi. Ndayishimiye was hand-picked by Nkurunziza to run for the presidency, and although Nkurunziza will step down as President to make way for his successor, he will receive the title “Supreme Guide,” a luxury mansion and a stipend of over half a million dollars. According to the BBC, Nkurunziza’s successor must consult him on matters of national security and unity by law.

Ethnic conflict between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority in the region has led to prolonged violence in Burundi since its independence in 1962. A ten-year civil war began in 1993 following Burundi’s first democratic presidential election of a Hutu candidate, Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye was assassinated, as were many of his allies, by a Tutsi-led rebel group; ethnic violence ensued resulting in nearly 300,000 deaths, according to the BBC. International sanctions on Burundi following the 2015 election have left deep economic cleavages in Burundian society. Over 65% of Burundians live in poverty; nearly 55% are chronically food insecure, according to the United Nations. Burundi ranks 185th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index. Profound economic and social reforms are necessary to address poverty rates and poor access to food and other essential goods that have only intensified during the Coronavirus pandemic. Burundi faces a unique dilemma in accepting an election marred by possible fraud and suppression, as political violence and low legitimacy can only exacerbate existing social inequalities and lead to further unrest within the state. By moving forward to accept the results, the international community must provide more robust accountability measures during Ndayishimiye’s administration and remain committed to providing election audits and support in upcoming elections. It must also pressure the incoming Burundian government to follow through on campaign promises to alleviate poverty and food insecurity and commit to protecting freedom of expression for all citizens.

Isabelle Aboaf