Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Disputed Burundi Election Goes Ahead, Despite Violence
July 21, 2015 6:15 p.m. ET

Burundi’s long-delayed presidential poll proceeded on Tuesday despite a night of gunfire and explosions in the capital and international appeals to President Pierre Nkurunziza to postpone it.

Bloody street protests, a refugee exodus and a failed coup attempt have roiled this tiny central African nation since Mr. Nkurunziza announced in April he would seek a third term in office, even though the country’s constitution limits the president to two.

The U.S., France and other international powers have urged him to reconsider his bid, and top officials have defected from the government to protest it.

On Tuesday, the answer from Mr. Nkurunziza was clear: He wouldn’t back down.

As polls opened at 6 a.m., the streets of the capital Bujumbura appeared relatively calm. At least three people—two civilians and a police officer—were killed in the violence overnight, according to regional military commander Col. Marius Ngendabanka. He gave no details on the circumstances of their deaths, but they appeared to be related to clashes ahead of the vote.

Polls closed at 4 p.m. local time, and officials said official results would be announced within two days.

There was little doubt that Mr. Nkurunziza would win the vote. The opposition boycotted the election, alleging it was rigged in favor of the incumbent. The African Union and international rights groups declined to send election-monitoring teams, saying the prolonged period of violence that preceded the vote had made campaigning and a free and fair election all but impossible.

Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said Burundi wouldn’t let outsiders dictate its elections.

“We have our constitution. Burundi isn’t trying to interpret the United States’ constitution, or Belgium’s or France’s or other countries’,” Mr. Nyamitwe said. Mr. Nkurunziza has argued that he has the right to run for a third term because he was elected to his first term by the legislature, not by a popular vote.

Amid tight security by government security forces, turnout at polling stations in the capital, a city of some 707,000 people, appeared light. By 9 a.m., only four people had showed up at a polling place in the neighborhood of Nyakabiga. The district has been one of the centers of protest against Mr. Nkurunziza’s pursuit of a third term.

Outside of the city’s university, one student said he was refusing on principle to cast a ballot. “How can I vote when Nkurunziza doesn’t respect the constitution?” Arthemon Ndabirabe asked.

There was a danger that violence would continue after the election, said Yolande Bouka, a researcher in Nairobi who covers Burundi for South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

Protest leaders said they were planning to keep demonstrating despite their failure to get the president’s name removed from the ballot. Some opponents to Mr. Nkurunziza are increasingly well-armed. Earlier this month, the government said it had put down an attack from alleged insurgents who it said had been behind the coup attempt in May.

“My feeling is you’re going to have continued small episodes of violence until either the country breaks into a war or the armed opposition runs out of resources and stamina,” Ms. Bouka said.

While Burundi is a small nation of just over 10 million people, its past conflicts have spilled into neighboring Rwanda and Congo, triggering violence in both countries.

“It is definitely not over,” Ms. Bouka said.

Write to Heidi Vogt at

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