Burundians voted on May 20 in the first round of presidential, deputy, and councilor elections — with most attention on the president.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, with the ruling Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party, returned for a controversial third term in 2015. But after 15 years in power, he did not run again.
Throughout the entire election process, ongoing concerns over security continue to loom.
Several violent incidents were reported on election day. A member of the opposition party National Freedom Congress (CNL) was found dead in Rumonge district, and various CNL polling station monitors were arrested.
Burundi has registered 5.1 million voters but citizens abroad were unable to vote. Refugees were also not able to vote due to a lack of identification. According to the United Nations, there are 330,000 registered refugees plus 87,000 otherwise recorded in the region.
Opposition CNL party candidate Agathon Rwasa rejected these initial results as “fanciful,” saying there was proof of fraud, including ballot-box stuffing, and that he would appeal. Contested results could further deepen tensions.
Social media was blocked early on May 20 until the following evening. With the restrictive media environment and a lack of independent electoral observers, Reporters Without Borders criticized elections as occurring “behind closed doors”:
⚠️ Alert: Social media and messaging apps disrupted in #Burundi on election day; real-time network data show Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp unavailable via leading network operators; incident ongoing 📉
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) May 20, 2020
The government highlighted its financing of these elections independent of aid. However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) described the “voluntary” public collection of funds as a “confiscatory and arbitrarily administered system of forced contributions.”
Some opponents questioned the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), criticizing the over-representation of ruling party supporters among polling station monitors, and not publishing the list of registered voters. The Council for the Defense of Democracy party (CNDD) withdrew from elections, criticizing irregularities and closed political space.
Ahead of elections, Iwacu newspaper lamented politicized violence, while Burundi Human Rights Initiative described a “facade” of peace, with systematic repression, uninvestigated deaths and international “inertia.”
Ruling party candidate Ndayishimiye said the elections would be secure, speaking after clashes between security forces and gunmen in February. Despite this narrative of calm, though, the UN Commission of Inquiry warned of a “spiral of violence.”
Days before the election, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ruling government kicked out World Health Organization country representatives.
Human Rights Watch wrote:
— Lewis Mudge (@LewisMudge) May 14, 2020
East African Community members were called on as election observers. However, on May 8, officials required a 14-day quarantine on arrival, due to COVID-19, making it unworkable. CENI said there were some observers from various embassies.
Several smaller parties, some effectively ruling party CNDD-FDD “satellites,” supported their candidates.
The ICG said the final result was not completely certain, given the successful campaign of opposition CNL candidate Agathon Rwasa.
ICG also noted that CNDD-FDD candidate Ndayishimiye has to manage party factions and Nkurunziza’s lasting influence.
Kira-Burundi party and UPRONA with candidate Gaston Sindimwo (current first vice-president), suffered splits. Opponents in exile boycotted this time, but they are also weakened by divisions and the failure of mediated dialogue.
Analyst Thierry Vircoulon argued that the ruling party benefits from the existence of opposition voices but only to give an appearance of democracy. Change appears unlikely with the new candidate because the “council of generals” within the ruling party remains the locus of power.
On the campaign trail
The campaign officially ran between April 27 and May 17. SOS Médias Burundi, though, reported Imbonerakure (CNDD-FDD party youth) campaigning beforehand and using intimidation tactics — even entering people's houses, notably in “opposition” neighborhoods. They also reportedly coerced people to show support, including moto-taxi drivers and school children.
Iwacu and RFI described a campaign marked by violence, including murders, kidnappings, fights and interference in rallies. These acts are disproportionately committed by CNDD-FDD supporters, often with complicity from police, although all campaigns were affected.
Opponents criticized arbitrary arrests, including over 200 CNL supporters and several candidates. Analyst Julien Nimubona told Iwacu that the CNL's popularity provoked a repressive reaction from the CNDD-FDD government.
CENI’s president said the campaign went well and CNL supporters were not targeted. Police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikye even blamed CNL supporters for most incidents, although the Burundi Human Rights Initiative said this lacked credibility and neutrality.
Most candidates focused on economic development in their messaging, and independent candidate Dieudonne Nahimana focused on youth. Political language often became confrontational, though.
CNDD-FDD speeches often evoke god, protecting them from enemies, including Rwanda and Western states. They often denounce critics as imperialists to discredit them, positioning itself as a “liberator.”
Ndayishimiye likened opponents to supporters of the colonial-era Parti Democratique Chretien and said opponents provoked CNDD-FDD supporters.
CNL's Rwasa said people would not accept electoral fraud, and he argued CNL supporters should not be held responsible if they defend themselves. A police spokesperson and interior minister then accused him of inciting violence. Rwasa reiterated that they did not want conflict.
Leonce Ngendakumana, the Sahwanya-Frodebu party candidate, also criticized the CNDD-FDD’s rule. Francis Rohero, an independent candidate, said he viewed Rwasa and Ndayishimiye similarly — both ex-rebels focused only on their supporters.
After the 2015 elections, protests and a failed putsch followed, which triggered repression of opponents, media and civil society, rebel attacks and economic strife. Several hundred thousand fled the political and economic crisis as refugees.