Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Burundi: Can a Credible Election Take Place amid Political Crackdown?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Burundi: Can a Credible Election Take Place amid Political Crackdown?

Article excerpt

Residents of the Musaga neighborhood here in Burundi's capital have resorted to stringing strips of mosquito netting across the entrance of their street for protection.

"We put this here to defend our neighborhood from the police and the military. It can't really protect us, but it's all we have," says Eric Ndayisenga, an electrician. This area has been a stronghold of anti-government protests since April 25, when the ruling party announced President Pierre Nkrurunziza would run for a controversial third term.

Fear has gripped Burundi since a failed coup ended on May 13. The government used the uprising as an opportunity to crackdown on protestors, journalists, human rights activists, and any perceived opposition, making the current landscape virtually impossible for the presidential election scheduled for June 26 to be credible.

The most prominent opposition candidate, Agathon Rwasa of National Forces of Liberation (FNL), announced Friday that he is boycotting the elections because he no longer feels safe. Nor does he believe in the likelihood of a fair democratic process. His statement followed the May 23 killing of opposition leader Zedi Feruzi in a drive-by shooting. Also, no independent media is functioning, and most journalists are in hiding or have fled.

"If the general population is in fear for their life and their rights that is not a situation conducive to free and fair elections," says Stephanie Schwartz, a Burundi expert and PhD candidate at Columbia University.

Two members of the five-member electoral commission have likely fled the country, leaving just three in charge of conducting the election. They will also decide whether to delay the presidential vote by six weeks as recommended by the East African Community members in a meeting this Sunday. While it remains uncertain whether Mr. Nkurunziza will take heed, growing government intimidation is making it hard for all forms of opposition.

Intimidation is not new in Burundi, and the political space has been shrinking since before the 2010 election. But today, as Burundi prepares for an election in which its tenuous peace and democracy is at stake, all forms of opposition have all but disappeared.

Post-coup crackdownThe protests that rocked Burundi for weeks have since slowed to a trickle. Several dozen protestors still pound the streets most days, waving "Stop the third term" placards. But they say police are growing increasingly violent. Human Rights Watch says that since demonstrations began on April 26, at least 27 protestors have been killed and more than 300 have been injured.

"Get out of the streets or we'll shoot you in the legs so you can't run" says Blaise Ndayisenga from Musaga, recounting what an officer said to him when he tried to protest shortly after the failed coup. …

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