Pierre Nkurunziza looks set to win a third term as president of Burundi in elections on Tuesday, three months after his decision to run again plunged the country into crisis.
Nkurunziza and his supporters have put down political resistance, street protests, an attempted coup and an attack by a newly formed rebel group – as well as defying international calls for postponement – in order to open the polling booths across the tiny, land-locked east African nation. The crisis has displaced more than 150,000 people and left more than 100 dead.
Opposition candidates boycotting the vote on Tuesday have denounced it as “a piece of theatre”. One candidate, Agathon Rwasa, said Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term would lead to “the self-imposed political isolation of Burundi”. It is already the world’s hungriest and second-poorest country, and half its budget relies on European Union aid.
Poverty, corruption and persecution would only grow if Nkurunziza violated the law to stay in power, Rwasa said “We must be responsible for the fate of our nation.”
At least two people – a policeman and a civilian – were killed in explosions and gunfire overnight on Monday, AFP reported, with blasts and shootings heard as polls opened shortly after dawn in the capital, Bujumbura, the focus of three months of anti-government protests.
Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s chief communications adviser, condemned the attacks as terrorist acts aimed at intimidating voters.
About 3.8 million Burundians are eligible to vote between 6am (0400 GMT) and 4pm (1300 GMT).
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged calm, calling on all sides to “refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region”.
Nkurunziza, a former teacher turned rebel leader, claims that he is entitled to a third term in office since his first was not the result of a popular vote. The constitutional court ruled in April that Nkurunziza could run. The court’s deputy president fled the country, saying he was being forced to approve the ruling.
Nkurunziza’s opponents have said a third term violates both the constitution – which Nkurunziza has tried and failed to change – and the Arusha Accords, which Burundians regard as their Magna Carta for post-civil war reconciliation and peace.
The civil war in Burundi left at least 300,000 dead and analysts say renewed conflict could reignite ethnic Hutu-Tutsi violence and bring another humanitarian disaster on the region. The conflict also risks drawing in neighbouring states - much like in the war-torn east of Democratic Republic of Congo.
A last-ditch attempt to hold talks on ending the unrest was suspended on Sunday after the government failed to attend.
A decade of poor leadership had “disqualified the [ruling party] CNDD-FDD in the eyes of the population”, said a former president and withdrawn candidate Donatien Ndayizeye. Consequently, he added, the ruling party was compelled to use force.
“Don’t play with the eagle – it will tear you apart,” reads a piece of CNDD-FDD propaganda circulating on social media, which depicts an eagle, the party’s symbol, claws outstretched.
Human rights activists said 22 opposition politicians were assassinated during Nkurunziza’s last five-year term, with many more afraid to leave their homes and receiving regular death threats.
On 13 May, renegade generals attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza. The coup failed, but the dissidents have since launched a rebellion. On 10 July, there were heavy clashes close to the Rwandan border between the army and an armed group loyal to Gen Leonard Ngendakumana, who participated in the coup. United Nations experts have urged the security council to act to prevent “a major conflict of regional proportions”.
“The war will start soon,” said a protester in an opposition neighbourhood of the capital, who claimed to be supporting a rebel army on the Congolese border by delivering medical supplies. “We have to do something. We can’t let them steal our country and rule for another five years.”
The opposition boycotted parliamentary elections on 29 June, granting the ruling party a landslide victory. Independent media have been silenced in the wake of the coup attempt.
On Saturday, the last day of campaigning, Nkurunziza’s supporters went around the capital teaching the electorate – 67% of whom are illiterate – how to vote with a thumb print next to their party’s logo.
Citegetse Bénigne, a women’s representative for the CNDD-FDD, promised peace and employment to a 100-strong crowd. “You put your inky thumb by the ... ?” she shouted. “Eagle!”, the crowd roared.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report