The East African nation of Burundi went to the polls on Wednesday. The election is meant to usher in the first democratic transition in 58 years of independence for the impoverished nation. President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose government has repeatedly been accused of rights abuses, will step down after 15 years.
The citizens of Burundi are surprised that Nkurunziza would step aside after a referendum in 2018 extended the length of a presidential term to seven years. This led many to believe he would try to stay in power. Critics and rights groups have however warned that Nkurunziza is unpredictable and the election could be a mere formality.
Face masks and social distancing were observed as voting began after 6 a.m. But Burundi’s government has been criticized for not appearing to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. Nkurunziza himself also attended crowded political rallies. The country has 42 confirmed virus cases.
Ahead of the vote, government agents were accused of harassing the main opposition party, the CNL. The leader of the CNL Agathon Rwasa is believed to be in a close race with Nkurunziza’s chosen successor in the ruling CNDD-FDD, Evariste Ndayishimiye. Police have however accused Rwasa of making provocative and defaming remarks thereby inciting a revolt.
Some in Burundi worry that a rigged election could spark the kind of street demonstrations that marked the previous vote in 2015. The demonstrations occurred when Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term that some called unconstitutional.
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.
Burundi’s damaged global relations
The deadly turmoil that followed badly damaged global relations. 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 subsequently kicked out of the country. Burundi’s government has denied allegations that it targets its people.
Also, just last week, the World Health Organization’s top official in Burundi was kicked out as well amid concerns about the pandemic response.