Burundi goes to the polls in disputed election after night of violence

President Pierre Nkurunziza casually casts his vote as he bids for a third term in office, while opposition candidates boycott ballot

The Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza, arrived to cast his ballot riding on a mountain bike and sporting a navy tracksuit branded with his Hallelujah football club logo as the country went to the polls in disputed elections after three months of instability that culminated in a failed coup attempt in May.

Voting followed a night punctuated by gunfire and explosions in the capital, Bujumbura, in which at least two people were killed.

Protesters angry about Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term, which they claim is unconstitutional, clashed with security forces in the city, while the president voted in the forested hilltop village of Buye, near the Rwandan border.

A three-man queue was mustered so the president could be photographed waiting in line while Batwa pygmies, a marginalised minority ethnic group, clapped and sang for him.

Opposition candidates, who boycotted the vote on Tuesday, denounced it as “a piece of theatre”. One leading candidate, Agathon Rwasa, said the extension of Nkurunziza’s term would lead to the self-imposed political isolation of Burundi.

Although eight candidates appear on the ballot paper, most have already withdrawn from the race and those who remain are not seen as having a chance against the incumbent, having been unable to campaign due to the unrest and the closure of most independent media.

In one polling station, the Saint-Etienne school in the centre of Bujumbura, voters were seen scrubbing off ink from their fingers to avoid reprisals from opposition supporters boycotting the ballot, AFP reported.

One voter said: “I do not want to return home with ink on the finger.”

The president styles himself as a man of the people, yet has appeared acutely out of touch with the popular resistance to his desire for a third term in office.

While protesters were being shot on the streets of the capital in May, Nkurunziza could regularly be found playing football on a private pitch beside the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.

His two terms as president followed a 13-year civil war and a five-year peace process. Under Nkurunziza, Burundi’s Tutsi and Hutu groups – which represent 14% and 85% of the country respectively – have come together and the former divisions have been largely overcome. A UN election observer in Ngozi said: “I hear he has done a good job of keeping the peace.”

But his opponents argue that he has remained at the helm not because of his good governance but due to a heavy-handed approach to silencing opposition. The political space has narrowed to a slither; scores of opposition politicians, journalists and members of the president’s CNDD-FDD party have fled the country in recent months, citing threats to their lives. One opposition party leader, Zedi Feruzi, was shot dead while out jogging in May.

Independent radio stations are the most valued sources of information in Burundi, where few have electricity and less than 2% of the population has internet access. All independent radio stations have been off-air since they came under rocket and arson attack after the coup that attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza in May.

A supporter of Rwasa said: “In the 2010 election, the election was not well organised. It was not free and fair, because the election commission was in the ruling party’s pocket. The CNDD-FDD has chosen the same people to run these elections, because it knows that they’ll do what the party wants.”

The US condemned the elections on Tuesday and said the process lacked credibility. John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, said the ballot would “further discredit the government”. In a statement, he warned that Burundi “risks its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and the international community”.


Jessica Hatcher in Ngozi

The GuardianTramp

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