Burundians have begun voting in a tense presidential vote, with the election commission calling for a peaceful vote despite simmering political violence and the coronavirus pandemic.
Burundians stood in long lines outside polling stations, which opened shortly after 6am local time (04:00 GMT), to elect not just their new president, but parliamentarians and local councillors, who in turn appoint the members of the Senate.
The election is meant to usher in the first democratic transition in 58 years of independence for the impoverished east African nation.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose government has repeatedly been accused of rights abuses, will step down after 15 years. His ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party candidate, retired army general Evariste Ndayishimiye, is running against opposition leader Agathon Rwasa and five others.
“We call on Burundians to massively go to vote and vote peacefully. We need good elections,” Pierre Claver Kazihise, chairman for the election commission, known as CENI, said in comments aired by state broadcaster RTNB.
“The voter is asked to leave after casting their ballot. No gatherings are allowed near polling stations.”
Each booth has a blue ballot box for the presidential election, a green one for the legislative and red for the local.
The government has refused any observers from the United Nations or the African Union, accusing the latter of being too close to the opposition.
Social networks had been shut down from at least one hour before voting began, with access only possible via a virtual private
There was widespread international criticism of Burundi’s last election in 2015, when Nkurunziza ran for a third term.
His opponents said his participation violated a peace deal that ended the civil war and boycotted the poll.
The election sparked violent protests that drove hundreds of thousands of Burundians into exile.
The UN documented hundreds of killings as well as the torture and gang rape of opposition activists. Donors withdrew funding in protest.
The government denies accusations of rights violations.
Rwasa, like Nkurunziza a former rebel leader, warned of possible electoral fraud in his final rally on Sunday.
“We know there is plan of election fraud, some are even intimidating people asking for their voter cards to vote for them,” he said. “All of that is worthless.”
The United Nations and the African Union said in a joint statement on Sunday they remained “concerned about reports of intimidation and violent clashes between supporters of opposing sides”.
There will be few election monitors after the government said they would have to spend 14 days in quarantine to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
The government expelled the national head of the World Health Organization (WHO) last week following public criticism that all parties were holding rallies despite the disease.
The country of 11 million people has reported only 42 coronavirus cases and one death.
Testing remains very low, however, with only 633 tests carried out, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.