BUJUMBURA, Burundi – Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza was Friday declared the outright winner of controversial elections, handing him a third consecutive term at the helm of the central African nation despite opposition protests and international condemnation.
Nkurunziza won 69.41% of the vote in Tuesday’s polls, handing him an immediate first-round victory, the election commission said.
He won 16 out of 18 provinces, with the other two taken by his closest rival Agathon Rwasa – who won 18.99% – even though he had denounced the polls as illegitimate.
“We are very happy with this result,” said Pascal Nyabenda, the head of Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party, while insisting that the president will not be seeking a 4th term in 2020.
“These elections were well organized and took place in a situation of peace and security. I don’t know why a section of the international community say they were not credible. They were free, transparent and took place in security.”
Nkurunziza’s candidacy was condemned as unconstitutional by the opposition and provoked months of protests and an attempted coup in mid-May. His victory could trigger donor sanctions against the already impoverished nation.
There are also widespread fears the country, situated in the heart of central Africa’s troubled Great Lakes region, could be plunged back into civil war.
“What has just happened is the climax of a coup d’état against the constitution by President Nkurunziza,” fumed Jean Minani, a prominent opposition leader.
“The opposition does not accept and will never accept that these were credible elections. We call on the international community not to recognize the results and to continue to push for real negotiations to prevent Burundi from going over the precipice,” he said.
Although 8 candidates were on the ballot paper for the presidential polls, most withdrew from the race, with the closure of most independent media preventing them from campaigning. The election commission insisted however that turnout in the polls was a healthy 73.44%.
Election observers from the East African Community, which tried but failed to mediate a solution to the crisis, also denounced the polls.
“The electoral process fell short of the principles and standards for holding free, fair, peaceful, transparent and credible elections,” observers from the regional body said in a statement, describing turnout as “low to average in most polling stations visited”.
“The principle of choice was generally hampered by insecurity – a general feeling of fear and despondency in some parts of the country – confinement of democratic space, civil liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, media, campaigning and the boycott by opposition parties,” it added.
Anti-Nkurunziza protests have rocked the capital and some rural areas since late April and have been violently repressed, leaving at least 100 people dead and countless of others wounded or in detention.
Many opponents have also fled – joining an exodus of more than 150,000 ordinary Burundians who fear their country may again be engulfed by violence.
In mid-May, rebel generals attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza in a coup, which failed. They have since launched a rebellion in the north of the country.
The government dismissed criticism of the poll after the United States, European Union and former colonial power Belgium said the election was not credible.
In the latest in a string of attacks, 4 people were wounded in a grenade attack overnight Thursday on the house of an official from Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party.
The European Union said Thursday it would begin reviewing its cooperation with Burundi, including trade, political cooperation and development aid.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini reiterated a threat to impose sanctions on “those whose action have led to or are leading to acts of violence and repression, to the serious violations of human rights or hindering the quest for a political solution” to the crisis.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon has urged calm and a political dialogue to end the crisis. (READ: UN: Burundi elections not free or credible)
He took “note of the broadly peaceful conduct of polling” but called “on all parties to continue to remain calm and immediately resume an inclusive political dialogue to resolve their differences”.
The 51-year-old president – a former rebel, born-again Christian and football fanatic – faced no serious competition in the polls, but critics have said his win will be a hollow victory, leaving him ruling over a deeply divided nation.
Analysts say renewed conflict in the country could reignite ethnic Hutu-Tutsi violence and bring another humanitarian disaster to the region. The last civil war in Burundi, which ended in 2006, left at least 300,000 people dead. – Esdras Ndikumana and Aymeric Vincenot, AFP/Rappler.com