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Burundi goes to the polls despite protests

26 June 2015, 07:35

Bujumbura - Burundi goes to the polls on Monday in local and parliamentary elections, despite international calls for a poll delay after weeks of violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to cling to power.

"We are determined, there will be no turning back," said a top official of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, which boycotted UN-led crisis talks this week, calling them a diversion "aimed to disrupt the elections".

But the party is also split, with one of the country's vice presidents - and a key CNDD-FDD member - fleeing to Belgium and adding his voice to calls for Nkurunziza to abandon his controversial third-term bid.

Also Read: Burundian vice president flees to Belguim

The central African nation was plunged into turmoil in late April when Nkurunziza launched his drive to serve a third consecutive five-year term in upcoming presidential elections.

His opponents say this is unconstitutional and a violation of a peace deal that ended 13 years of civil war in 2006.

Around 70 people have been killed in weeks of opposition protests that have been brutally suppressed, triggering an exodus of around 100 000 into neighbouring countries.

Some of the worst violence took place last month after a failed coup.

‘Violates the constitution’

In a letter addressed to Nkurunziza, second vice president Gervais Rufyikiri urged the president to "put the interests of the Burundian people before your personal interests".

"Withdraw your presidential bid, because it violates the constitution," Rufyikiri wrote after fleeing the country.

But analysts said the ruling party appeared intent on pressing ahead with the elections, despite the country being mired in its worst crisis since the end of the 1993-2006 war.

Many fear a repeat of that violence, which split the country along ethnic lines, pitting the majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis.

'Deaf' to sanctions threat

European Union foreign ministers have threatened sanctions against individuals involved in the violence, while both the African Union and the regional five-member East African Community (EAC) bloc have warned "conditions for the holding of elections do not currently exist." The United States has issued similar warnings.

"The problem is that the Burundian leaders do not respond to traditional patterns of diplomacy - and are totally deaf to calls and threats of sanctions," said one diplomat, adding the diplomatic community was unsure of how to act in the face of such intransigence.

Nkurunziza's CNDD-FDD is an ex-rebel Hutu group, that fought in the bitter 1993-2006 civil war in which at least 300 000 people were killed.

Today, power still remains concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite around Nkurunziza, particularly a core of powerful generals.

Also Read: Burundi government rejoins UN-led crisis talks

A former CNDD-FDD rebel said that, although the group became a political party after the peace deal, little has changed.

"The military leaders still run everything," said the former rebel and one-time ruling party loyalist, who spoke on condition he not be named.

Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention think-tank, said the country's fate was in the hands of "less than 10 people", who "all have the same goal and the same vision: to stay in power."

Ethnic quotas

Under the constitution, based on the Arusha peace deal that paved the way for the end of the civil war, there are strict Hutu-Tutsi ethnic quotas in parliament.

But leaders of the Hutu-dominated ruling party are also reportedly considering changes to that arrangement of sharing power with Tutsis, "putting aside the political consensus embodied in the agreement of Arusha," Vircoulon said.

After a brief lull in the violence, following a crackdown by security forces on more than a month of street protests, the situation has escalated again in recent days.

At least four people have been killed and 40 wounded in a string of grenade attacks targeting both civilians and police in the past few days.

Nkurunziza's critics fear worse could lie ahead.

But ruling party leaders appear desperate to retain power, despite the risks. According to one CNDD-FDD dissident, who also asked not to be named, Nkurunziza is being backed "even if this plunges the country back into chaos."



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