Burundi holds crucial presidential election amid pandemic

A voter holds her identity card in her mouth as she washes her hands before casting her vote in the presidential election, in Giheta, Gitega province, Burundi Wednesday, May 20, 2020. A crucial election has begun in the East African nation of Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is stepping aside after a divisive 15-year rule but will remain "paramount leader" in the country that continues to reject outside scrutiny. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A crucial election was underway Wednesday in the East African nation of Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is stepping aside after a divisive 15-year rule but will remain “paramount leader” in the country that continues to reject outside scrutiny.

The vote is one of the most important transfers of power in Burundi since independence in 1962.

Few face masks were observed, even on the ruling party’s candidate, as voters crammed close to each other in line. Some paused to wash their hands. Burundi’s government has been criticized for not appearing to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. Nkurunziza himself attended crowded political rallies. The country has 42 confirmed virus cases.

“We are not afraid because the organizers did not require us to distance 1 meter,” voter Ndayishimiye Innocent said. “They saw that God is with us.”

Regional observers are not present after being told that arriving foreigners would face a 14-day quarantine, and on Wednesday citizens and journalists said access to social media was not possible without a virtual private network.

“The government is cutting social media so that we don’t tell the world what is happening,” said one voter, Jean Pierre Bazikamwe.

Nkurunziza praised the election because “no foreigner came to trouble them as it happened in the past.”

Ahead of the vote, government agents were accused of harassing the main opposition party, the CNL, whose leader Agathon Rwasa, the deputy parliament speaker, is believed to be in a close race with Nkurunziza’s chosen successor in the ruling CNDD-FDD, Evariste Ndayishimiye. Police have accused Rwasa of making “incendiary and defamatory” remarks and inciting revolt.

Ndayishimiye called on all candidates to accept the election results. “You cannot refuse the decision of Burundians who voted because you also are included in them, as you participated,” he said.

When he cast his ballot Rwasa condemned the social media cuts, saying it could be a way of committing election fraud. He called for respecting the people’s will. “If we are satisfied we will say it, but if we are not we will also say it,” he said.

One electoral commission official, Zirabura Ferdinant, dismissed concerns: “As you can see, everything is in order and we expect everything to move along freely and fairly.”

But some in Burundi worry that a rigged election could spark the kind of street demonstrations that marked the previous vote in 2015, when Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term that some called unconstitutional.

The president on Wednesday said people would not oppose the results of this election “because in the past they did it due to ignorance” and asserted that “they won’t commit the same mistake.”

The deadly turmoil that followed the 2015 vote badly damaged global relations, and Burundi became the first country to leave the International Criminal Court after it started investigating allegations of abuses. The U.N. human rights office reported more than 300 extrajudicial killings and was kicked out of the country. Burundi’s government has denied allegations it targets its people.

Last week, the World Health Organization’s top official in Burundi was kicked out as well amid concerns about the pandemic response.

If none of the seven candidates receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election will occur within weeks. More than 5 million people are registered to vote in the country of nearly 12 million.

Analysts have said that Ndayishimiye, a retired general, would be a weak president because he will be a front for the 56-year-old Nkurunziza and other powerful ruling party members.

Many Burundians were surprised that Nkurunziza would step aside after a referendum in 2018 extended the length of a presidential term to seven years and led many to believe he would try to stay in power.

Critics and rights groups have warned that Nkurunziza is unpredictable and the election could be a mere formality.

“There is no free playing field. We are not going to have a credible election,” said Stephanie Wolters, an analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs. “If Ndayishimiye is elected, he will have to invite political opposition, civil society back into the country and also participate in the national dialogue with the opposition.”

Some voters reflected the skepticism and uncertainty.

“I know my vote won’t be counted but I have to make a change. That is why I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to come to vote,” said one, Suzane Bucumi.

“I come to vote for the change. Everybody aspires for change now,” said Jean Claude Bitsure.

Ruling party supporters disagreed.

“During the civil war (from 1993 to 2005 that killed about 300,000 people) I lost my parents and we were not spending nights in our homes. I must vote for Evriste Ndayishimiye because it is the CNDD-FDD who ended the war,” said voter Marie Nduwimana.

“We thank the CNDD-FDD because these recent 15 years we have security,” said Melance Hakizimana, who added that “in a family there must be a heir to organize the affairs.”