Understanding Burundi’s Elections
July 9, 2010
The outcome of the elections in Burundi seems to have taken long term observers of the country by surprise. The first national elections in which the President was to be chosen by universal suffrage were expected to be an important step for Burundi’s democratic consolidation: an opportunity for the country’s political leadership to demonstrate its maturity by rising to the challenge of a vibrant opposition and waging a peaceful election campaign. Instead, the opposition melted away in the weeks before the election, in protest and under apparent threat from the nervous ruling party, CNDD-FDD. A last minute unanimous boycott by all opposition parties to the presidential elections left the leader of the CNDD-FDD and incumbent President, Pierre Nkurunziza, the only candidate standing. He received a 91.6% favorable vote in what became a default referendum on his leadership. The result has prompted a skeptical reaction from international observers.
Political competition, rather than ethnic tension, appears to be the primary reason for the boycott. While Burundi has a long history of inter ethnic violence between the majority (~85%) Hutus and minority Tutsi party, in this case the primary social fissures emerged between different ideological strands within the Hutu group. Given the Hutus’ status as the largest ethnic group, winning the allegiance of this potentially powerful constituency has become the country’s most coveted political prize.
Nationally, Pierre Nkurunziza has remained popular throughout the country, and even before the withdrawal of opposition candidates, his candidacy was not under serious threat. Although he has many critics within his own party, most acknowledge that he maintains strong support among rural Burundians. Nkurunziza remains popular among the population on the strength of social programs such as universal education for primary school children and free pre- and post-natal health care for women and young children. Nkurunziza reinforces this support with frequent visits to rural areas of his country.
The real threat for Nkurunziza and his ruling party is the slow erosion of support among Hutu elites. These are the fears that prompted Nkurunziza to begin his election campaign early, aggressively promote his accomplishments, and employ a variety of intimidation tactics. Throughout the last five years that the CNDD-FDD has been in government, the International Crisis Group (ICG) recorded a significant drop in support for the ruling party, and predicted in February that its representation in parliament could even fall below 50% in the June elections. 1
All this makes the sudden withdrawal of the opposition parties more disconcerting, because as recently as a few months ago, observers expected opposition votes to be significant and spread relatively evenly among the opposition parties. The five main opposition parties, FNL, FRODEBU, UPRONA, UPD, MSD, had all fielded presidential candidates well before even President Nkurunziza had announced his candidacy.
Nevertheless, many of these parties, in particular the former rebel group FNL, have struggled to mature into legitimate political contenders. Most have only recently shed the shell of militancy, and are still discovering their voice as political representatives. Many FNL officials, for instance, have received little formal education, and so their defense of their platform has been awkward and at times contradictory.
While no single opposition group mounts a serious challenge to the ruling CNDD-FDD, the possibility of a coalition of opposition forces has been a huge worry for the ruling CNDD-FDD. A Human Rights Watch report issued in May entitled, “We’ll Tie You Up and Shoot You,” suggests that although all political parties have engaged in some form of intimidation, the CNDD-FDD has been the worst offender. In the past two years, opposition parties routinely suffered from abuses ranging from arbitrary restrictions on their freedoms to meet and organize, to bribery and violence.2
It is unclear whether the opposition parties decided to drop out because of a failure to form a viable coalition, because of persistent threats, or as part of an effort to attract more international attention to CNDD-FDD's transgressions. What is clear is that they have been united in their opposition to both clear flaws in the electoral registration process as well as the actual conduct of the polling.
Opposition figures on June 30 denounced the election as “a masquerade,” claiming that voters had been intimidated by soldiers into voting. They have rejected the results outright and threatened to continue their boycott, which could lead to political deadlock in the country.
The sporadic violence of the past weeks and months has never approached the widespread interethnic violence of the civil war years. However, the raw tinder remains in place, vulnerable to the spark of a political standoff. Over half of the population is under the age of 25, and all the major political parties have youth movements. The CNDD-FDD’s youth movement, the Imbonerakure, has recruited demobilized soldiers, and over the past two years has been organizing regular physical training sessions and arming its members. In response, the opposition parties have recruited their own youth movements: Agathon Rwasa’s FNL party has the Hutu Patriotic Youth (JPH), and FRODEBU and UPD have similar movements. The country remains awash with small arms: estimates range from 70,000 to over 200,000 in circulation around the country. The media and civil society, which have largely served as a stabilizing force, are not invulnerable to radicalization. Foreign Policy magazine recently reported that Rema-FM, a radio station close to the ruling party, has been broadcasting the names of prominent opposition members, along with not so subtle accusations: “Two weeks ago, the radio station compared the political parties that pulled out of the presidential poll to the death squad that 15 years ago assassinated Melchior Ndadaye, the county's first Hutu president and first democratically elected leader since independence.”3
Do these trends make more widespread violence inevitable? Certainly not. Since the end of the civil war, a new constitution has sought to cement lasting stability in the country through power sharing agreements that, while not erasing the vicious ethnic rivalries that fuelled the civil war, have largely neutralized them.
A huge majority of Burundians seem to be tired of the violence and fully committed to peace, and so it is still more likely than not that they will resist the temptation to retaliate with arms. Nevertheless, for two decades, violence has been commonplace in the country, and is thus accepted by many Burundians as a legitimate tool should the conditions dictate. Significant, repeated provocations or perceived injustices could create such conditions.
The U.S. response to developments has been cautious. In May, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson testified on the Great Lakes Region at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He was largely supportive of the progress that Burundi has made but acknowledged its vulnerability: “The U.S. Government has consistently and repeatedly cautioned the government’s leadership as well as leaders of all the political parties about the need to avoid intimidation, provocation and violence.” The United States signed a UN Security Council statement urging all political parties to participate in the election but has issued no public statements since the elections.
The most salient question going forward is whether the most influential opposition parties, FNL, UPRONA, and FRODEBU, will rejoin the ballot for the parliamentary elections scheduled for July 23. The electoral commission has made clear that they are willing to stretch the registration deadlines to allow these parties to rescind their boycott. Until now, their efforts have been to no avail, and a coalition of 13 opposition parties remains hardened in their stance.
Given that the FNL and other parties have begun their transition from rebel groups to legitimate political parties, it is unlikely they will stay on the sidelines for long. Whether they will choose to participate in the democratic process or seek to extract concessions through other, more opaque means, remains an open question. Their choices, as much those of the incumbent CNDD-FDD, will define Burundi’s future as a genuinely democratic state in the heart of central Africa.
Brian Kennedy is the Africa Program Coordinator at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He can be contacted at email@example.com.