Burundi set for presidential poll amid political unrest

AP News
Posted: Jul 20, 2015 8:57 PM
Burundi set for presidential poll amid political unrest

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Burundi is set to hold a presidential election Tuesday amid unrest over incumbent President Pierre Nkuruniziza's bid for a third term in office.

Fears have been rife that the polls may trigger violence.

A grenade exploded in Bujumbura, the capital's central business district Monday but did not wound anyone, said Deputy Police Spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye. At night, gunfire could be heard in the neighborhood of Nyakabiga, according to local Journalist Patrick Wasso who lives nearby.

It was not clear if anyone was injured. The same neighborhood saw explosions and gunfire on the eve of parliamentary polls on June 26.

Preparations for voting day are complete with ballot boxes and papers distributed to nearly 11,500 voting centers throughout the country and security has been improved to ensure a smooth voting process, electoral commission spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiye said Monday.

Ntahorwamiye said the commission expects a high turnout of the 3.8 million registered voters, saying that improved security has encouraged refugees to return. But the U.N. refugee agency said it has not seen any returns of the more than 170,000 who have fled the country fearing election-related violence.

The European Union suspended its election observer mission in Burundi in May over concerns about restrictions on independent media, excessive use of force against demonstrators and intimidation of opposition parties and civic groups. Citing insecurity, Catholic Church leaders also withdrew their support for the elections as scheduled.

The United Nations Observer Mission to Burundi said the parliamentary election, in which the ruling party won a majority of seats, was not conducted in a conducive environment for free, credible and inclusive elections.

It has deployed to the field to monitor Tuesday's election.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on authorities "to do all in their power to ensure security and a peaceful atmosphere during the election" and "to refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region," his spokesman said.

Ban noted that East African Community-backed negotiations between the government, opposition and other political actors aimed at ending the unrest were suspected Sunday without agreement on a range of issues that would have contributed "to the creation of a climate conducive to the holding of credible and peaceful elections," the spokesman said.

The U.N. chief reiterated his appeal for the resumption of "a frank dialogue" among all parties and urged them to avoid undermining the progress achieved in building democracy, the spokesman said.

Bujumbura has seen weeks of sporadic street battles between the police and civilians. More than 100 people have died in demonstrations since the ruling party announced Nkurunziza's candidacy in April.

Protesters say Nkurunziza must go because the constitution limits the president to two terms, but the president's supporters say he is eligible for a third term because he was chosen by lawmakers — and not popularly elected — for his first term in 2005.

The unrest triggered an attempted military coup in mid-May that was quickly put down by pro-Nkurunziza forces.

Gloria Ndayisaba 35, who runs a food kiosk in Musaga market, said she will not vote because Nkurunziza is on the ballot.

"Peter (Nkurunziza, as some refer to the president) should just go home and let us continue with our lives. It's time to let another person rule," Ndayisaba said, adding that her business was down by 50 percent.

Dozens of Nkurunziza's critics including his second vice-president, the vice president of the electoral commission, and the deputy president of the Supreme Court have fled the country or are in hiding over death threats.

Of the eight presidential candidates three, including two former presidents, withdrew from the race last week saying the polls will not be free and fair. Burundi's electoral commission has, however, denied receiving their withdrawals.

"Nkurunziza running for the presidency is a constitutional coup," former president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, who has pulled out of the race, told The Associated Press by phone Monday.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein told the U.N. Security Council earlier this month that "the risk to human life, and to regional stability and development, is high" as a result of escalating politically motivated violence and Burundi's history of recurring bloodshed and atrocities.