Burundi backsliding as 2015 presidential poll approaches

Previously hailed for its success in bringing peace and stability to the country, Burundi’s power-sharing arrangement is rapidly unraveling. The 2005 constitution that brought an end to the 1993 civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, instituted a complex set of power-sharing provisions, including a stipulation that the president of the republic shall be assisted by two vice-presidents belonging to different ethnic groups and parties (art. 124). The constitution also mandates that parties must not be established exclusively on ethnic or regional bases.

By some accounts, these power-sharing arrangements have been successful to the extent that: “Today, political competition in Burundi no longer coincides with ethnic cleavages. Furthermore, the dominant party CNDD-FDD, while rooted in a Hutu rebel movement, is no longer perceived as an exclusive Hutu party. In fact, most Tutsi members of parliament are members of the CNDD-FDD and many presidential advisors are Tutsi” (Vandeginste, 2009 p. 75).

The power-sharing provisions have not succeeded, however, in creating a fertile ground for consolidating democratic practices. The opposition boycott of the 2010 legislative and presidential elections following allegations of fraud in local elections earlier in the year, left the political system dominated by a single party, the CNDD-FDD. Leaders of Frodebu (a Hutu-led party) and FNL (ex Tutsi-rebel movement) went into exile as politically-motivated violence mounted.

Uprona (a Tutsi-led party) participated until recently in government, occupying the position of first vice-president. However,  the power-sharing arrangement enshrined in the 2000 Arusha Peace Accords collapsed as Uprona joined the opposition in February of this year, protesting the apparent intention of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term. Nkurunziza sought to maintain constitutional appearances by appointing a new vice-president and three ministers from a smaller wing within Uprona – a move immediately rejected by Uprona leadership.

The argument advanced by the CNDD-FDD justifying a third term for Nkurunziza is that “The constitution provides for two terms by universal suffrage. The first term was not a direct vote [Nkurunziza was appointed by parliament in 2005]. It’s a matter of interpretation of the constitution.” 

In addition to the tensions around another term for Nkurunziza, the opposition and Burundian civil society organizations worry about the government’s unilateral push for constitutional amendments that would do away with many of the power-sharing provisions of the 2005 constitution, including: substituting a simple majority vote for the current two thirds majority requirement in parliament; replacing the two vice-presidents with a largely ceremonial vice-president and a powerful prime minister that does not have to be from a different ethnic group than the president; and raising the threshold for party representation in parliament from 2% to 5% of the votes cast.

With the June 2015 presidential poll looming large on the horizon as a potential trigger for further violence, the UN Security Council recently voted to extend the UN political mission in Burundi, despite the government’s initial opposition.

So while power-sharing may have succeeded at least partially in blurring ethnic divisions in Burundi, as seen by the FNL and Frodebu joining forces in opposition, it clearly has not effectively served to strengthen democratic institutions and practices.

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