Burundi Starts Counting Votes in Disputed Presidential Election

Burundi elections
Officials count votes at a polling station in the Kamenge neighbourhood of Bujumbura on July 21, 2015. Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Burundi began counting ballots in a presidential election that the U.S. and U.K. said lacked credibility given the political violence and voter intimidation.

Polling stations closed at 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday in relative calm after a night of gunfire and explosions that left at least two people dead in the capital, Bujumbura. The results will be known in days, the country’s electoral chief, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, said on state radio. Voter turnout was low in Bujumbura and higher in many rural areas, he said.

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term in April triggered protests that led to clashes with security forces. The violence left 77 people dead, drove about 170,000 from their homes and sparked a failed military coup.

Critics of Nkurunziza argue that he’s violating a two-term limit set out in a 2005 peace accord that ended a 12-year civil war, in which 300,000 people were killed. His supporters say the 51-year-old’s first term doesn’t count because he was chosen by parliament rather than popularly elected.

The unrest in Burundi has the potential to destabilize the Great Lakes region that includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s top copper and tin producer, and Rwanda, which had a genocide in 1994. Civil wars in the early 1990s in Burundi and Rwanda set the stage for conflict in neighboring Congo, the deadliest war in Africa’s modern history.

Harassment, Intimidation

The U.S. said Burundi’s presidential elections will not be credible and it’s considering sanctions, including visa restrictions, on anyone responsible or complicit in using violence to create instability in the East African country.

“The legitimacy of the electoral process in Burundi over the past few months has been tainted by the government’s harassment of opposition and civil society members, closing down of media outlets and political space, and intimidation of voters,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Tuesday.

The U.K. Minister for Africa, Grant Shapps, said in a statement the country risks undoing the gains of the past years since the end of the civil war.

“The Burundian government has failed to ensure the necessary conditions for credible, inclusive and peaceful elections,” Shapps said in the e-mailed statement. “I therefore do not consider these elections legitimate.”

A second vice president is among a number of officials who have fled the country in the past few months after allegedly being threatened for criticizing the government. At least four of Nkurunziza’s eight opponents in the vote, including the main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa, withdrew their candidacy, citing a lack of freedom to campaign. The electoral commission said the names of opposition candidates are still on the ballot and their votes will be tallied in the official count.

The UN said earlier this month that Burundi’s parliamentary elections held on June 29 weren’t free or fair.

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