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Wednesday, February 22, 2017
- The first in a series of elections has brought simmering discontent with Burundi’s electoral commission to the boil. Just over a week after the May 24 communal elections, five opposition presidential candidates have demanded the resignation of members of the National Electoral Commission and announced that they will boycott the presidential poll scheduled for Jun. 28
The five candidates have condemned what they say was massive fraud in the elections for local councillors. Results published on May 28 showed a massive victory for the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (known by its French acronym, CNDD-FDD).
Léonard Nyangoma, spokesman for 13 opposition parties and head of the National Council for the Defence of Demorcacy (the CNDD is a former rebel group, not to be confused with the ruling CNDD-FDD), told IPS that the communal elections did not meet international standards.
“There were numerous violations of the Electoral Code that we cannot accept. That is why we would like the nomination of a new Electoral Commission,” said Nyangoma.
Nyangoma said the ballot booths were much smaller than during the 2005 poll, the screens too low to prevent election monitors from seeing which party a voter chose. He said ruling party activists were watching voters, frightening them out of voting against the ruling party in some polling stations.
Burundi’s voting procedure is an unusual one: in the communal elections, each voter is given 24 ballots – each bearing the name and symbol of a different party – and two envelopes. In the polling booth, the voter puts her chosen ballot paper in the white envelope, and the rest into the black one. Exiting the booth, voters then put the white envelope with their chosen ballot paper into one box for votes cast, and the black envelope into another box, before having their thumb marked with indelible ink so they can’t vote again.
“The number of black envelopes containing useless ballot papers (at any given polling station) have to match with the number of white envelopes and this is to avoid cheating,” said Ntahorwamiye.
This unusual voting system – which almost seems designed to leave tempting boxes full of valid but unused ballot papers lying about – was unsuccessfully challenged by the opposition.
Continuing through the opposition’s list of grievances, Nyangoma said that despite specific provisions in the Electoral Code, delegates from each party to monitor polling stations were not given anything to eat or drink. He said that monitors could not stay at their stations unsupported for 36 hours, and their necessary absence created the chance to rig the vote.
The Electoral Code states that stations open at 6 am, and close at 4 pm unless voters are still arriving, in which case they can stay open until 6 pm. But the opposition says many polling stations throughout the country were still open up to midnight.
“Most opposition monitors could not wait until the closing of polling stations because they were hungry,” Nyangoma said. “They had to go home because at most polling stations, the election ended late, and counting (then) had to be carried out immediately that night.”
Further, Nyangoma says the ballot boxes at the counting stage were not the same as the ones at the polling stations earlier.
“There is evidence that the ballot boxes in which voters cast their ballots are not the ones used during vote counting. There were parallel ballot boxes which had initially been prepared to allow the ruling party to win; the evidence is that hidden ballot boxes are being discovered here and there.”
Patrice Nimpagaritse, a young member of another opposition party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), said he found seven ballot boxes full of sealed envelopes on May 29 in the Kinama slum in Bujumbura.
“Vehicles from the Electoral Commission were coming to pick them up, but we prevented them from embarking them since we suspected fraud after we realised ballot boxes had in them sealed envelopes containing ballot papers”, said Patrice Nimpagaritse.
Tension ensued and the head of Kinama urban Commune, Emile Ndayarinze told local media that the slum was sealed off by police for four hours to control the situation.
The alleged discovery of these boxes – about 30 were found in various parts of the country – fuelled opposition fears of malpractice. The boxes contained both white and black envelopes. The opposition charges that with the departure of the opposition’s electoral monitors – and under cover of a convenient power cut – the boxes containing the actual votes were quickly hidden and replaced with boxes already stuffed with votes for the ruling party and a few ballots for the opposition to provide a semblance of credibility.
“Such ballot boxes have been discovered in the provinces of Makamba, Gitega, Muyinga and in the Municipality of Bujumbura and had been hidden in people’s homes or in schools which did not serve as polling stations,” said Nyangoma.
Electoral Commission spokesman Ntahorwamiye offered explanations for each accusation. Polling stations remained open late in order to compensate for election day hitches.
“The Polling stations which were still open beyond 6 pm were not many. They were specifically in Gitega Province and a few other polling stations in Kirundo and Muyinga provinces where very few ballot papers had been sent,” he said. Ballot papers had to be brought from nearby polling stations after they closed.
Ntahorwamiye said there were simply no funds for electoral monitors. “We had informed leaders of political parties that we [the Electoral Commission] did not have money allocated to them [electoral monitors].”
The announcement by the five candidates threatens the successful conduct of elections that are widely seen as a test of Burundi’s peace. The last rebel group only laid down arms in 2009 after civil conflict that broke out in 1993.
The May 24 communal elections marked the begining of a four-month electoral period.
Next on the schedule is the presidential election due on June 28, which will be followed by the election of members of parliament on Jul. 23. On Jul. 28, elections to the Senate will be held and on Sep. 7, elections at the village level will be held.