The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The country held legislative, communal, and presidential elections during 2015, but the international community and independent domestic organizations widely condemned the process as deeply flawed. Several progovernment CSOs observed and validated the elections. The UN Electoral Mission in Burundi was the sole international observer of the voting; the African Union (AU) and the EU declined to participate in the process. Intimidation, threats, and bureaucratic hurdles colored the campaigning and voting period, resulting in low voter turnout and a boycott by most opposition parties.
In December 2017 the government announced a referendum campaign for several constitutional amendments and repressed opposition activity related to the amendments. On May 17, the referendum took place. During the months leading up to the referendum, there were widespread instances of harassment, intimidation, threatening rhetoric, and some violence against real or perceived opponents of the amendments. There were widespread reports that citizens were forced to register as voters during the February voter registration period and make financial contributions to preparations for 2020 elections, including through acts of violence and denial of basic services. The vote itself was largely peaceful but opposition parties charged irregularities including the expulsion of accredited monitors from voting stations and during the vote tabulation process. The Constitutional Court rejected an appeal by the Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of independents to contest the results provided by the CENI. No country or international organization officially observed the referendum, but a range of CSOs mostly representing progovernment viewpoints did observe the elections.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: During 2015 the government held four separate elections, including for communal councils and the National Assembly (June), president (July), the Senate (July), and village councils (August). Citing their inability to campaign fairly and freely, most opposition parties called on their adherents to boycott the elections. The CNDD-FDD won absolute majorities in the National Assembly and Senate.
The EU’s election observation mission reported that sufficient conditions for credible elections were not met. The AU also declined to send observers because the conditions were not conducive to credible, transparent, free, and fair elections. According to the International Crisis Group, CENI and the Ministry of the Interior created bureaucratic obstacles to opposition parties, including failing to recognize party leadership, refusing to permit legal party meetings, and favoring CNDD-FDD loyalists for positions on provincial and communal election committees.
In December 2017 President Nkurunziza announced a referendum to amend the constitution. During the speech he warned that opposition to holding the referendum was a “red line,” while stating that opponents of the constitutional changes would be able to make their case. Several government and ruling party officials subsequently made statements threatening individuals opposed to the referendum. In a December 2017 speech in Cibitoke province, Sylvestre Ndayizeye, a senior leader of the Imbonerakure, reportedly called on his colleagues to “identify and subdue” those who opposed the campaign. In April a video circulated on social media networks of a CNDD-FDD party official in Muyinga province, Melchiade Nzopfabarushe, threatening to kill opponents of the referendum and dispose of their bodies in Lake Tanganyika. Nzopfabarushe was arrested, charged with making violent threats and threats to state security, convicted, and sentenced to three years in prison on April 30. In June, following the referendum, his sentence was reduced on appeal and he was released from prison. Human rights activists reported other instances of party or government officials using violent rhetoric with no apparent repercussions.
There were numerous reports of members of the security services and the Imbonerakure arbitrarily arresting, harassing, or committing violence against individuals suspected of campaigning against the referendum, including supporters of opposition parties. In May HRW issued a report that documented human rights violations that targeted individuals who refused to contribute funds to finance the referendum vote and the 2020 elections or for not belonging to the ruling party. HRW stated that impunity for these acts was widespread and encouraged further abuse. The number of arrests of opposition members increased significantly in the months preceding the vote, although in many cases those arrested were released shortly thereafter.
In 2017 the government began a campaign to generate citizen contributions to a fund for elections, with the intention of domestically financing future elections. In December 2017 the government released a decree formalizing the campaign, under which amounts were to be automatically deducted from the salaries of civil servants. Deductions began in January. The decree specified that contributions from other citizens were to be voluntary but identified recommended contribution levels for salaried employees and for farmers. Beginning in July 2017, however, and increasing significantly following an announcement by the minister of the interior in June of relaunching efforts to generate contributions from citizens, government officials and members of the Imbonerakure pressured citizens to donate. There were reports of violence, harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and denial of freedom of movement of citizens who failed to demonstrate proof of payment.
There were widespread reports of compulsion for citizens to participate in the February 8-17 voter registration period, during which voters registered for both the referendum and 2020 elections. Members of the security services, local officials, and members of the Imbonerakure allegedly committed acts of violence, denied basic services, and denied of freedom of movement to citizens who could not demonstrate proof of registration. This included the arrest, alleged torture, and death of Simon Bizimana (see section 1.a). Members of the Imbonerakure closed a market in Makamba commune on February 12 and Rumonge commune on February 13, in each instance forcing vendors and customers to demonstrate proof of voter registration before being allowed to conduct business. There were numerous reports of school administrators threatening discipline against secondary school students who would be of voting age either for the referendum or by 2020 and who failed to register.
Political Parties and Political Participation: According to the law, to qualify for public campaign funding and compete in the legislative and presidential elections, parties needed to be “nationally based,” i.e. ethnically and regionally diverse, and demonstrate in writing they were organized and had membership in all provinces. The Ministry of the Interior recognized 32 political parties. Other de facto parties–including the FNL-Rwasa and Union for National Progress, led by Evariste Ngayimpenda–were officially unrecognized. These two unrecognized parties worked together in the form of a coalition of independent candidates called Amizero Y’Abarundi, which held 22 of the 121 seats in the National Assembly and five of the 21 seats on the Council of Ministers due to power-sharing provisions in the 2005 constitution. The revised constitution promulgated in June officially banned such coalitions and included other constraints on independent candidates for future elections, although Amizero Y’Abarundi continued to function and maintained its legislative and ministerial positions. As a result of this change, on September 14, Amizero Y’Abarundi leader Agathon Rwasa announced that he was seeking official accreditation for a new political party, the National Front for Liberty-Amizero Y’Abarundi. On November 8, the Ministry of the Interior responded with a letter stating that the proposed party acronym and insignia were too similar to those of an existing registered party, violating the law on political parties. On November 12, Rwasa filed an updated application; according to the 2011 law regulating political parties, the government was required to respond within two months.
Other parties, such as the Union for Peace and Development, were recognized by the Ministry of the Interior but were unable to operate due to intimidation and suppression by the government. In April 2017 the minister of the interior suspended the MSD. In August 2017 the minister filed a motion with the Supreme Court to ban the MSD permanently, accusing the party of support for acts of violence and creating a paramilitary wing in violation of the law on political party activities. The president of the MSD, Alexis Sinduhije, was associated with the armed opposition group Resistance for a State of Law in Burundi (RED-Tabara) and was captured on video advocating violence against the government. As of October the case remained pending without an official ruling from the court. The government issued arrest warrants for some members of the opposition group National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord and the Rule of Law, whom it accused of participation in the 2015 failed coup.
Ministry of the Interior interference in opposition party leadership and management contributed significantly to the weak and fractured nature of opposition parties. The government stated that the law allows only legally constituted political parties, coalitions of political parties, and independent candidates to run for office and that unrecognized leaders of parties and political actors not associated with a party could play no role in the political process. Two nonrecognized parties were able to compete with constraints through the Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of independents. Other parties not recognized by the government, however, were largely unable to conduct political activities. The constitution’s ban on coalitions for independents further constrained the options of nonrecognized parties and risked disenfranchising them.
The constitution also included measures increasing restrictions on independent candidates, including a measure that prevented individuals from running as independents if they claimed membership in a political party within the previous year or if they had occupied a leadership position in a political party within the previous two years. The constitution also provided that independent candidates for the National Assembly must receive at least 40 percent of the vote in their district in order to be elected, a standard that did not apply to candidates representing political parties.
The new constitution removed provisions included in the 2005 constitution and the 2000 Arusha Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation that provided for representation in the Council of Ministers on a proportional basis for political parties or coalitions of independents that received at least 5 percent of the national vote in legislative elections. These provisions were intended to facilitate consensus-based decision making in the aftermath of the country’s 1993-2005 civil war. The revised constitution replaces one of the two vice president positions with a prime minister who has more authority than does a vice president. Under the constitution, the president has the authority to name a vice president who must be of a different ethnicity and party, a prime minister, and cabinet ministers. Whereas the previous vice president positions oversaw different ministerial portfolios, all ministers would report to the prime minister under the constitution while the vice president position would have more limited authority. As of November the revised executive structure had not been implemented, and government officials stated that it would be put in place following the elections in 2020.
Individuals often needed membership in, or perceived loyalty to, a registered political party to obtain or retain employment in the civil service and the benefits that accrued from such positions, such as transportation allowances, free housing, electricity, water, exemption from personal income taxes, and interest-free loans. During the year there were reports of individuals facing harassment, arbitrary arrest, and violence, including torture and killings, for refusing to join the CNDD-FDD at the hands of members of the Imbonerakure, government officials, or other ruling party supporters. These reports, along with the pressure placed on citizens to register as voters or to provide contributions for elections, led some observers to suggest that the space for citizens to support an opposition party or be apolitical was diminishing, constituting an impingement on freedom of expression and association.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and women and minorities did participate.
The constitution reserves 30 percent of positions in the National Assembly, Senate, and Council of Ministers for women, and government institutions hired persons after the elections to meet gender, as well as ethnic, quota requirements. The 2017 international NGO law extended this quota to NGO employment as well. Women were not well represented in political parties and held very few leadership positions. Some observers believed that traditional and cultural factors kept women from participating in politics on an equal basis with men.
The constitution provides for representation in all elected and appointed government positions for the two largest ethnic groups. The Hutu majority is entitled to no more than 60 percent of government positions and the Tutsi minority to no less than 40 percent. The law designates three seats in each chamber of parliament for the Twa ethnic group, which makes up approximately 1 percent of the population.