Pierre Nkurunziza and his supporters have put down political resistance, street protests, an attempted coup and an attack by a newly formed rebel group – as well as defying international calls for postponement – in order to open the polling booths across the tiny, land-locked east African nation. The crisis has displaced more than 150 000 and left more than 100 dead.
Opposition candidates boycotting the vote on Tuesday have denounced it as “a piece of theatre”. One candidate, Agathon Rwasa, said Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term would lead to “the self-imposed political isolation of Burundi”. It is already the world’s hungriest and second-poorest country, and half its budget relies on European Union aid.
Poverty, corruption and persecution would only grow if Nkurunziza violated the law to stay in power, Rwasa said. “We must be responsible for the fate of our nation.”
Nkurunziza, a former teacher turned rebel leader, claims that he is entitled to a third term in office since his first was not the result of a popular vote. The Constitutional Court ruled in April that Nkurunziza could run for a third term. The court’s deputy president fled the country, saying he was being forced to approve the ruling.
Nkurunziza’s opponents have said a third term violates both the Constitution – which Nkurunziza has tried and failed to change – and the Arusha Accords , which Burundians regard as their Magna Carta for post-civil war reconciliation and peace.
A last-ditch attempt to hold talks on ending the unrest was suspended on Sunday after the government failed to show up.
A decade of poor leadership had “disqualified the [ruling party] CNDD-FDD in the eyes of the population”, said a former president and withdrawn candidate Donatien Ndayizeye. Consequently, he added, the ruling party was compelled to use force.
“Don’t play with the eagle – it will tear you apart,” reads a piece of CNDD-FDD propaganda circulating on social media, which depicts an eagle, the party’s symbol, claws outstretched.
Human rights activists said 22 opposition politicians were assassinated during Nkurunziza’s last five-year term, with many more afraid to leave their homes and receiving regular death threats.
On May 13, renegade generals attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza. The coup failed , but the dissidents have since launched a rebellion. On July 10 there were heavy clashes close to the Rwandan border between the army and an armed group loyal to General Leonard Ngendakumana, who participated in the coup. United Nations experts have urged the security council to act to prevent “a major conflict of regional proportions”.
“The war will start soon,” said a protester in an opposition neighbourhood of the capital, who claimed to be supporting a rebel army on the Congolese border by delivering medical supplies. “We have to do something. We can’t let them steal our country and rule for another five years.”
The opposition boycotted parliamentary elections on June 29 , granting the ruling party a landslide victory. Independent media has been silenced in the wake of the coup attempt.
On Saturday, the last day of campaigning, Nkurunziza’s supporters went around the capital teaching the electorate – 67% of whom are illiterate – how to vote with a thumb print next to their party’s logo.
Citegetse Bénigne, a women’s representative for the CNDD-FDD, promised peace and employment to a 100-strong crowd. “You put your inky thumb by the … ?” she shouted. “Eagle!”, the crowd roared.