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.
RFI reported a high turnout  and Iwacu newspaper showed  long queues  to vote early  in the morning. There were some reports of voter registration irregularities  and the withholding  of voter cards.
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 
Despite a few reported cases  of COVID-19, there are concerns  over limited  measures and underreporting. During campaigning, distancing  measures and the topic itself was reportedly  forgotten.
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.
CENI initially rejected  four out of the ten submissions  for presidential candidates. On appeal, ex-president Domitien Ndayizeye was accepted  as the seventh candidate with the Kira-Burundi party.
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 .