Burundi Elections Proceed Despite Political Turmoil

Voting in Burundi’s parliamentary elections began at 6 a.m. against a backdrop of political protests that have turned deadly, leaving over 80 Burundi citizens dead and over 400 more injured. Burundi opposition parties have boycotted polling stations, creating an atmosphere of fear and chaos for voters in areas where support for the president has waned. In areas where presidential support is strong, voters freely lined up to vote.

Al Jazeera reports that heavy security has been set up across the Burundi capital of Bujumbura, where there are reports of gunfire as police respond to anti-government threats and escalating violence. BBC News reports continued grenade attacks on Burundi polling stations following a night of gunfire leading up to the elections. The New York Times reports at least three Burundi polling stations were attacked during the night.

Burundi’s anti-government protests have been bubbling over since April when current president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek reelection in Burundi’s upcoming July 15 presidential election, facing off against opposition party’s Agathon Rwasa. Nkurunziza’s decision, which some call unconstitutional, was met with protests and a failed military coup. Since then, anti-government gangs are said to have taken to Burundi streets under the cover of night, stoning and beating members of the opposition party. The leader of the opposition party (FRODEBU), Jean-Paul Ngendakumana, was murdered in a machete attack.

Since Nkurunziza announced his decision to run, protesters have burned a building housing election documents. Increased police presence has reportedly agitated anti-government protesters and spurred more violence causing a rise in grenade attacks. An activist working in Musaga spoke to Al Jazeera of Burundi’s unrest on condition of anonymity.

“Because the protests were stopped by force, rather than of the protesters’ own volition, they feel compelled to use grenades.”

Burundi’s current unrest has caused the flight of what the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates as approximately 127,000 refugees into neighboring territories including Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia, with more fleeing on a daily basis.

Recently, the African Union stated they would not recognize Burundi’s elections, following months of political instability.

Parliamentary speaker Pie Ntavyohanyuma fled Burundi in fear of his life. The Guardian reports he is now living temporarily in Belgium, where he called Nkurunziza’s decision to run again “illegal.” Nkurunziza, who has been in office since 2010, insists that a court ruling allows him to run for a third five-year term.

Burundi is no stranger to reports of violence. Since Burundi’s recent uptick in violence, the state-controlled news organization RTNB has silenced independent news outlets, forcing independent radio stations off-air. RTNB remains the only news source for Burundi residents.

Despite opposition, President Nkurunziza, in a show of Burundi solidarity, took part in the elections, arriving by bicycle to vote in his native Ngozi.

[Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images]