Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza postponed local and parliamentary elections originally scheduled for May 26th to June 5th because of requests from opposition politicians and the international community, according to the president’s spokesman. The contentious June 26th presidential election, however, is unchanged despite violent protests over Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term.
The delay comes while Burundians cannot access reliable information due to a media blackout where many radio stations remain closed and several journalists are in hiding as chaos continues after last week’s failed coup attempt. One resident of Bujumbura, the capital, describes the situation as the destruction of freedom of expression, and another local bluntly stated, “We are no longer informed.”
A lack of information is especially troubling now because more than 20 people have died in less than a month of protests after opposition forces took to the streets when Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party nominated Nkurunziza as their candidate for president. The country’s constitution and the Arusha Peace Agreement, the latter of which ended a twelve-year ethnic civil war in 2005, both limit the presidency to two five-year terms.
Nkurunziza, who has ruled since 2005, asserts that he can run for a third term because he was initially appointed by parliament to rule rather than elected by the people, making his first term not count towards the ten-year limit. Opponents argue that seeking a third term is unconstitutional and a move towards illegitimate authoritarianism.
The most recent violence came Wednesday in Bujumbura when police accidentally killed an army soldier and wounded another while shooting at demonstrators. The troops were trying to stop police from targeting protesters who were throwing stones. The army has generally remained neutral in street confrontations while the police have been more aggressive against demonstrations.
Due to protesters clashing with security forces and the Imbonerakure youth wing of the Hutu CNDD-FDD perpetrating violence primarily against ethnic Tutsis, over 105,000 people have fled Burundi in recent weeks to neighboring countries, creating a refugee crisis.
This is the context in which Nkurunziza delayed parliamentary elections, but pushing them back will likely do little to mitigate opposition protests. It could, however, be a precursor for delaying the presidential election. Diplomats, opposition leaders, the European Union, and the African Union have at least expressed concern over holding the election in such turmoil if not advocated for its official postponement.
Given Nkurunziza’s determination to remain in power, he will probably only push back the election if the violence escalates to such a level or he feels sufficiently threatened by another coup that he sees no other choice. Such an action would indicate the president fearing he could lose control on the ground and be unable to handle the opposition, likely leading to more violence if Nkurunziza nonetheless sought reelection.
Discussions of postponement are hypothetical at this point, but with the election just over five weeks away, the decision must be made soon. It would be best to keep the election date unchanged and maintain as much of a stable, democratic system as possible.
The Burundian citizenry can make the decision about who should lead the country and be prepared to act as necessary if Nkurunziza loses but refuses to give up power. If the situation becomes untenable, though, then delaying the election may be required.
Whether the presidential election remains on June 26th or not will have important repercussions for Burundi, and the result of the race, whenever it is held, has the potential to define Burundi’s political identity going forward as democratic or authoritarian. Perhaps more importantly, the outcome of the Burundian political crisis has implications for the entire Great Lakes Region, with the possibility of renewing ethnic divisions.
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