Burundi – New constitution, new president?

Burundi adopted a new constitution on May 17, 2018 by referendum, with 73 percent voting in favor. The adoption of a new fundamental text was seen by opponents as a move by President Pierre Nkurunziza to extend himself in power by resetting the term limit clock to zero, while by the same token doing away with power sharing provisions from the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The campaign period was tense and, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 15 people were killed. The opposition called for the outcome to be annulled due to vote-rigging and intimidation, but was overruled by the constitutional court that validated the results.

Against all expectations, at the ceremony for the promulgation of the new constitution, on June 7, President Nkurunziza declared on national TV that he will not stand for reelection in 2020, when his current mandate ends, stating that “This constitution was not modified for Pierre Nkurunziza as the country’s enemies have been saying. It was amended for the good and better future of Burundi and the Burundian people.”

Nkurunziza, in power since 2005 at the end of the civil war that killed 300,000 people, stood for and won a highly controversial third term in 2015 [see previous blog post here]. A failed coup and crack-down against opponents followed, and it is estimated than 400,000 Burundians have since fled the country, out of a population of 10 million. Under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Burundi became the first country to leave the ICC in 2017.

So what are some of the main changes included in the new constitution? As it appears, a number of provisions for ethnic power sharing have been maintained, while some requirements for power sharing between parties have been eliminated:

  • Burundi returns to semi-presidentialism (the country was previously semi-presidential from 1992 to 1994) with a prime minister as head of government, accountable to both the president and the legislature. The candidature of the prime minister must be approved by both chambers of parliament voting separately (Art. 130), and he or she can be dismissed by a two third majority vote of members of the National Assembly (lower house) – though the president in turn can dismiss the National Assembly (Art. 208). There are no constraints with regards to the ethnicity or the party affiliation of the prime minister.
  • The length of presidential terms is extended to 7 years from five (Art. 97); also, the provision regarding term limits now states that no one can serve more than two consecutive terms – which would seemingly leave open the door for a Putin-like come-back as president after a stint as prime minister.
  • There is now only one vice-president instead of two, who assists the president in the exercise of his or her functions. The vice-president must be approved by both houses of the legislature and must belong to a different ethnic group and party/coalition than the president. Previously, the two vice-presidents had to be from different ethnic groups and parties [from each other, not necessarily from the president]. The First Vice-President was responsible for the coordination of the political and administrative domain, and the second Vice-President for the coordination of economic and social affairs. In the new constitution, the role of the vice-president is left at the discretion of the president.
  • The provision for proportional representation of parties in the cabinet having earned more than 20% of the vote has been removed. The ethnic and gender representation requirements that, overall, at most 60% of cabinet ministers can be Hutu and at most 40% can be Tutsi, and at least 30% must be women (Art. 128) remain in place. Also maintained is the requirement that the Minister in charge of National Defense is not from the same ethnic group as the Minister responsible for the National Police (Art. 135).
  • The parliamentary majority required to pass legislation is reduced from a super majority of two thirds to a simple majority (Art. 180).

While streamlining governing processes – by introducing a prime minister as head of government, removing one vice-president and eliminating the requirement for a super majority to pass legislation – the constitutional changes also eliminate some of the power-sharing provisions enshrined in the 2005 constitution, in accordance with the Arusha Accords. As noted in a previous blog, these power-sharing arrangements had 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).

However, in the new constitution the representation in government of either of the two majority ethnic groups is still capped at 60% and 40% for Hutus and Tutsis respectively; this does maintain pressure on political parties to be ethnically inclusive (Hutus account for around 85% of the population, Tutsis around 19%, and Twa people around 1%). So not all power-sharing provisions are lost.

The constitutional changes do remove some constraints on the president’s powers and clearly provide greater opportunities for extended stays in the presidential palace. So it is intriguing that Nkurunziza has stated he will not run again in 2020. According to critics, 2020 is still far away, however, leaving Nkurunziza “room to maneuver” in response to “popular pressure” for him to extend his stay in power. That would certainly not be an unexpected development.

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