NAIROBI - Voters in Burundi cast ballots in parliament and communal elections Monday following a night of gunfire in the capital and weeks of violent political protests. The government said it was pressing on despite international concerns about the credibility of the vote.
Voting took place against a backdrop of political turmoil surrounding President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plans to run for a third term in office, a move opponents say violates the law.
Election officials say voting went smoothly before polls closed in the evening. However, reporters in Bujumbura say there appeared to be few people at polling stations.
Residents say gunfire and at least one grenade explosion could be heard in the capital, Bujumbura, despite a heavy security presence. No injuries were reported.
A failed coup attempt and the assassination of an opposition leader in May have added to a hostile political environment in Bujumbura.
A VOA reporter in the capital heard intense gunfire across the city late Sunday.
African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, urged Burundi to postpone the local elections and the presidential vote scheduled for July 15. Zuma’s spokesperson, Jacob Enoh Eben told VOA Daybreak Africa the African Union is concerned about reports of ongoing violence.
“These are not conditions, which are really conducive to elections that the African Union would sanction as free, fair, transparent,” he said.
The AU said it would not be sending observers for Monday’s vote.
African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma expressed concern about what she called "the serious political and security situation" in Burundi. AU observers were not participating in Monday's elections.
Zuma said the AU, U.N. and regional bodies had called on Burundi to delay the vote until July 30, along with the presidential vote now set for July 15. She said Burundi is at a "crucial phase of its history," and that the political turmoil has "serious implications for peace and security" in the country and the region.
A U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, also expressed disappointment in the elections, saying there were "woefully inadequate conditions for free and fair elections" in Burundi.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had called for the elections to be postponed, on Monday expressed "serious concerns" about the vote to African leaders in the region.
Burundi presidential media advisor Willy Nyamitwe told VOA the president has a legal mandate to run and elections will go on.
“The constitutional court came out with a decision saying that this candidacy does not violate any law of the country, so no one else in the country or outside the country can say this is a violation of our constitution,” he said.
A number of high-level Burundian officials have defected or fled in defiance of the president’s plans to run for another term. The most recent is the parliament head who said he fled to Belgium fearing for his life.
About 100,000 Burundians have also fled to neighboring countries fearing violence.