NAIROBI - Burundi is holding its first competitive presidential election since a 1993 civil war, with President Pierre Nkurunziza stepping down after 15 years in power. But political analysts and rights groups say few Burundians expect the vote, which has already been marred by violence and rights abuses, to be free and fair.
Wednesday’s vote marks Burundi's first step toward a post-Nkurunziza era. His time in office has been marred by allegations of human rights abuses and his controversial decision to seek a third term in 2015.
Nelleke van de Walle, deputy project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group, says Nkrunziza’s decision not to run again may help the east African nation make some political progress.
“I think the fact now there are elections in which he is not represented and he has shown a willingness to step down, I think it indicates that there might be a possibility for Burundi to move forward and to take a step in a different direction,” van de Walle said.
Nkurunziza picked retired army general Evariste Ndayishimiye to be the candidate of the ruling CNDD FDD party. He will compete against main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa and five other candidates.
The electoral process has been marred by violence and accusations that the vote will not be credible.
At his last political rally, Rwasa warned of possible electoral fraud.
Jean de Dieu Nzisabira, the head of Ligue Iteka, a Burundian rights group, says failure to agree on the presidential poll results may create more problems for the country.
“We fear if there is massive fraud in this elections, we fear there will be a very dangerous situation because the major opposition party may not accept the result of the polls and the ruling party, it's sure it has won. So we fear for the civilians,” de Dieu Nzisabira said.
Since 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Commission has documented hundreds of killings, torture, and sexual abuse against opposition members in Burundi. The abuses were blamed on security forces and the ruling party youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure. The 2015 crisis led to more than half a million Burundians fleeing the country.
The ICG’s van de Walle says Burundi’s next administration will likely give more attention to economic development.
“Both politicians mainly focused on economic development. So I think both Rwasa and Evariste realized that when they become president, they have to take the country forward in reviving its economy. So it's likely that the country will open more slightly than it has under Nkurunziza. So restoring economic ties is a priority for both presidential candidates in case of victory for Evariste today or in the second round,” van de Walle said.
The electoral commission is expected to announce the presidential poll results next week.