Burundians on Wednesday will bring the curtain down on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s 15-year-long rule, in elections that are taking place despite a largely-ignored outbreak of coronavirus.
Electors are being called out after five years of turmoil sparked by Nkurunziza’s bid for a disputed third term, which unleashed unrest that left at least 1,200 dead and saw 400,000 flee the country.
Some 5.1 million registered voters will choose between Nkurunziza’s handpicked heir and frontrunner, 52-year-old general Evariste Ndayishimiye, main opposition competitor Agathon Rwasa, and five other candidates.
While Ethiopia chose to postpone its elections as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Burundi has pushed ahead with the vote, which will also see lawmakers and local officials elected.
The population of an estimated 11 million people have not had any restrictions on their movement unlike in neighbouring countries.
As seen throughout the campaign, Saturday’s final rally of the ruling CNDD-FDD party in commercial capital Bujumbura saw heaving crowds of thousands gathered for hours, with only buckets of water and soap available as a nod to the virus.
Ndayishimiye and other officials have repeatedly insisted God is protecting the East African state from the virus, and the country has officially recorded only 42 positive cases and one death.
However, doctors accuse the government of minimising the extent of the outbreak, while residents of Bujumbura have told AFP of mysterious deaths of neighbours and relatives with respiratory problems and fevers.
The campaign was marked by violence and arbitrary arrests — the kind that has persisted in the shadows since the 2015 poll — and observers expect a bitter contest between the two frontrunners.
Ndayishimiye is a party veteran who like Nkurunziza, fought for the ethnic Hutu rebellion during the country’s 1993-2006 civil war with the minority Tutsi-dominated army. The war left some 300,000 dead.
Rwasa, 56, was a leader of the country’s oldest ethnic Hutu rebel movement Palipehutu-FNL, one of the two main rebel groups in the war.
In the eyes of the majority Hutu, who makes up 85 percent of the population, Rwasa has as much legitimacy as a presidential candidate as his rival.
“The people won’t let their victory be stolen,” warned Rwasa, after the ruling party made clear it expects no other outcome than a resounding win.
Nkurunziza’s decision to step aside came as a surprise after constitutional changes in 2018 opened the possibility for him to stay in office until 2034.
In January this year legislators passed a law offering a golden parachute to outgoing presidents, including a luxury villa and a one-off sum equivalent to more than half a million dollars.
The retired president will also get the same benefits as a serving vice-president for seven years after he steps down, and will for the rest of his life get an allowance equal to that of a lawmaker.
The outgoing president was in February named the “supreme guide for patriotism” and he is expected to retain an influential role if the ruling party retains its power.
The election will take place far from the eyes of the world — the government has refused any observers from the UN or the African Union, accusing the latter of being too close to the opposition.
Observers highlight the massive crowds mobilised by Rwasa during his campaign.
“There is a phenomenon of despair, a feeling of ‘anything but the CNDD-FDD’, and Rwasa is riding this wave,” said International Crisis Group expert Onesphore Sematumba.
Burundians were forced to contribute individually to the financing of the elections, an unpopular measure after years of deep recession prompted by the political crisis.
The World Bank lists Burundi as among the three poorest countries in the world, with 75 percent of the country living in extreme poverty and six out of 10 children suffering growth stunting due to malnutrition.
Polls open at 0400 GMT and close at 1400 GMT, with results expected by next Monday or Tuesday.