Election Watch: Burundi’s constitutional referendum

On 17 May, Burundian voters will decide if they want to sanction amendments to the constitution. The new text would allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for another two seven-year terms from 2020. In addition, the proposed constitution is likely to bring changes to the structure of the Burundian administration. First, it will allow bills in parliament to pass with an absolute majority, instead of the current two-thirds’ majority. Second, it extricates the intelligence agency Service national de renseignement (SNR) from the ministry of interior, effectively sparing it civilian oversight as was hitherto the case.

It is clear that should Burundians approve the constitutional changes, which is highly likely, the ruling party Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD–FDD) will take an even more dominant role in Burundian political life, and the Hutu-dominated party is likely to continue to limit the influence of the Tutsi minority, effectively ending the power-sharing agreement that resulted from the Arusha Accords – a peace treaty that ended an ethnicised civil war between 1993 and 2005. The CDD-FDD regularly conflates the political opposition with the Tutsi minority, which the government has repeatedly accused of being sponsored by Rwanda, a country led by President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi.

The opposition has been virtually silenced, or at best, highly divided

Against this backdrop, ethnic antagonism in Burundi is likely to remain high over the next month. Disagreement over the processes necessary to sanction the vote remains between the government and opposition parties; the former argues that an absolute majority is required for the text to pass, while the latter argues that the vote is only a consultation and that the it is ultimately up to the national assembly and senate to approve it or not.

The risks of a weakened opposition

Opposition to the current constitutional changes is unlikely to reach the momentum and level of violence that followed presidential elections in April 2015, when Nkurunziza ran for an unconstitutional third term. The opposition has been virtually silenced, or at best, highly divided. Most influential opposition leaders have either been killed, arrested or forced into exile, leaving the remainder little option but to stage protests or take up arms. Indeed, since the post-electoral crisis of 2015, there has been a proliferation of non-state armed groups with links to Burundi, including the Forces populaires du Burundi (FPB; formerly Forebu). Since 2015, these groups have engaged in grenade attacks often targeting the national security service and law enforcement, including in the capital Bujumbura, and further grenade attacks are likely during and after the campaign period preceding the plebiscite.

As the opposition’s options remain limited and while momentum grows in favour of the new constitution, further violent incidents such as grenade attacks on police and government buildings are highly likely in the one-month outlook, not least in retaliation to a sharp increase in April of the number of violent incidents by law enforcement against civilians, most of whom are opponents to the referendum.

Business travellers are unlikely to be directly targeted in violence, but are likely to face travel risks, mostly because of the many roadblocks set up by the CNDD-FDD’s youth league, Imbonerakure, including in Bujumbura.

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