Burundi election turns into a referendum

Voters went to the polls yesterday in small numbers to choose a leader in a historic election that was marred by an opposition boycott and pre-election violence.

epa02227517 A voter has their thumb marked before casting their ballot, for the Burundi 2010 presidential elections, at a polling station, in Bujumbura, Burundi, 28 June 2010. All six opposition candidates have pulled out of Burundi‘s presidential elections, in which voting started on 28 June 2010, leaving incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza in a one-horse race. The other contenders withdrew their candidatures after complaining of manipulation and vote-rigging in the local elections in late May 2010.  EPA/YANNICK TYLLE *** Local Caption ***  02227517.jpg

BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI // Burundians went to the polls yesterday in small numbers to choose a leader in a historic election that was marred by an opposition boycott and pre-election violence. Pierre Nkurunziza, the president, is all but guaranteed victory after all major opposition parties withdrew their presidential candidates.

The boycott turned Burundi's first multi-party election into a referendum on the president. The opposition parties withdrew after last month's local elections, which the ruling CNDD-FDD party swept amid opposition claims of fraud. Turnout was sparse across Bujumbura, the capital that is sandwiched between terraced hills and Lake Tanganyika. Two grenade attacks in the capital on Saturday kept people from the polls. The opposition threatened more attacks if people voted, but no violence was reported by late yesterday afternoon.

By midmorning, only five people queued at a primary school in an opposition stronghold in Bujumbura to cast ballots. "This election is very important," said Jumapili Bagorikunda, 24, an auto mechanic. "If our president tells us to support him, we must support him. He's not an angel. He's done some good things and some bad things, but the good things are many." The spike in violence leading up to the election has troubled some observers. Dozens of grenade attacks across the country have left five dead and scores injured.

Burundi, a tiny central African nation wedged between Rwanda, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo, is emerging from more than a decade of civil war. Like in Rwanda, Hutus fought Tutsis in Burundi resulting in the death of a quarter of a million people. But unlike in Rwanda, rival Hutu groups continued fighting with each other. The final rebel group put down its arms last year. These elections, while violent, are not likely to spark a return to civil war, according to Neela Ghoshal, a Human Rights Watch researcher, who was recently expelled from Burundi after writing a report on political violence.

"In the past, people were mobilised by ethnic violence," she said. "It is harder to mobilise people around politics. This is a test for post-conflict democratic elections." The lack of opposition candidates has dashed the hope for a democratic election. Similar opposition boycotts in Sudan and Ethiopia earlier this year gave long-time rulers easy victories and called into question democratic gains in Africa.

Voters in Burundi were given a ballot with the ruling party's name on it. They were asked to put the ballot in either a white envelope for "Yes" or a black envelope for "No" and deposit both envelopes into boxes. A purple ink-stained finger signified that someone voted, but few such examples could be seen in Bujumbura and rural areas around the capital. Pierre Mpimbona, the head of a local human-rights organisation, said the opposition boycott kept many people away from the polls.

"There is no one here, and last time there were plenty of people," he said, referring to last month's local election. "You can tell there is a boycott." Burundi has little in the way of resources, aside from some coffee exports, yet the international community pumped US$40 million (Dh147m) into setting up these elections, which continue next month with legislative polls. Despite the boycott, the president was hoping at least half the electorate would turn out to legitimise the poll. But by the afternoon, election officials at many polling stations reported a turnout of less than 20 per cent. Some election workers dozed in their chairs when no voters turned up. Others talked about closing the polls early and going home.

"We have been getting one person every 30 minutes," said Adolphe Nshimirimana, an election official at a polling station in the village of Kanyosha, just outside of the capital. "Last night there were two grenade attacks. I think that is the reason they don't come. Maybe they are afraid." Observers from the European Union and African Union reported no initial irregularities, and a more detailed report is expected in the next week. The results of the poll should be announced within days, although any result other than a victory for the president is highly unlikely.

Mr Nkurunziza is popular in rural areas. He has brought peace to the country, built roads and initiated free healthcare for delivering mothers and children as well as free education. But some educated Burundians in the capital say that the president's regime is corrupt, and they want a change. Instead of turning out to vote against the president, supporters of the withdrawn opposition candidates were also boycotting the poll. Some were enjoying the day off by lounging on the sun-soaked beaches of Lake Tanganyika.

"There is no reason to participate in an election with only one candidate," said Jean Ingabire, an internet café worker. "I am supporting the opposition by not voting." mbrown@thenational.ae