Fragile Burundi kicks off electoral marathon

Local polls kicked off on Monday in Burundi, the first phase of an electoral marathon set to put the small war-scarred African nation’s peace deal and democratic credentials to the test.

Polling stations opened early, with about 3,5-million voters called to pick local councillors in a ballot seen as a key test for presidential and legislative elections due in June and July respectively.

The polls were delayed twice from Friday as a result of problems with the supply of voter cards and ballots, a hitch that heightened concerns over the vote’s credibility despite the electoral commission’s assurances.

President Pierre Nkurunziza and former rebel leader Agathon Rwasa conducted high-octane presidential-style campaigns for the local polls, relentlessly criss-crossing the landlocked country, one of the world’s poorest.

The 45-year-old born-again Christian president spared no effort until the very last minute of the campaign last week, rallying crowds.

“We will win this one. And if you still want me, in 2015 and 2020 ... But if you can find somebody who is better than me, then vote for him and I will leave,” he told recently supporters at a rally.

While the young president enjoys the advantages of incumbency, competition is fierce among parties from the Hutu community, the majority group accounting for around 85% of the country’s 8,5-million inhabitants.

The polls that brought Nkurunziza to power in 2005 were considered largely free and fair, but the string of elections starting Monday will be the first in which all the country’s political forces are represented.

The last active Hutu rebel group laid down arms last year and became a political party, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), with Rwasa at its helm.

The peace process ongoing since the end of Burundi’s 13-year civil conflict in 2006 has in many respects been a success story but most observers are concerned that electoral heat could boil over.

“While there does not seem to be a great risk of inter-ethnic violence, the prospect of an election battle between rival political groups seeking to win the support of Hutu voters could undermine the Burundian democratic experiment and push some former combatants back into fighting—which would wreck the recent benefits of the peace process,” said a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

Hours before the scheduled start of polling on May 21, it emerged that a shortage of voters’ cards and irregular ballots would delay the election.

The opposition was quick to claim the problem was not simply a logistical mishap but an attempt by Nkurunziza’s regime to rig the vote, with some polling stations allegedly receiving only ruling party ballots.

By late Sunday, the electoral commission appeared confident that all logistical problems had been solved.

FNL spokesperson Jean-Bosco Habyarimana still had doubts and claimed that the “elections have not been well organised and risk not being transparent.”

“On Monday, the commission cannot afford a slip-up ...
It’s not just its own credibility that is at stake in this electoral process, it’s the stability of the entire country,” said one diplomat.—Sapa-AFP

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