By Matthew Cohen, IFES Program Officer
Already marred by political tensions that have their roots in the 12-year civil war that ended in 2005 under the authority of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, the 2015 elections will likely be a historic turning point, for better or worse, in Burundi’s democratic transition. The current political environment is heavily dominated by the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), partly as a result of an opposition boycott of the 2010 electoral cycle and the subsequent exile of major opposition leaders. Over the last four years, the ruling party has used its near-monopoly over national politics to consolidate its power over key government institutions.
In this already fragile context, several worrying trends have emerged in the run up to the 2015 elections that could jeopardize their legitimacy and security. Due to increasingly restrictive laws regulating public meetings and the media, space for political participation has steadily shrunk since 2010. Furthermore, the ruling party has systematically wielded its authority to dispossess opposition leaders of their political parties and appropriate sympathetic factions. Perhaps even more worrying is the rise in prominence of violent youth wings of political parties, particularly the Imbonerakure, who are affiliated with the ruling CNDD-FDD. These groups hearken back to the civil war when most of today’s major parties were rebel militias. A leaked United Nations communique suggesting that Burundian youth were being armed and receiving military training in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and a December 29, 2014 clash between Burundian police and militants based in the DRC leaving 90 people dead, further highlight the potential for widespread violence and make apparent the tenuous nature of peace in Burundi.
While preparations for elections have moved forward despite political tensions, substantial challenges to credible elections remain. A new electoral code was promulgated on June 3, 2014 and the electoral calendar for the 2015 electoral cycle was published on July 18, 2014, establishing a firm legal framework and timeline for the elections. In application of the new electoral code, the Communal Council and National Assembly elections have been combined and are scheduled to be held on May 26, 2015. Following the first poll, the presidential, senatorial and “hill/suburb” elections are scheduled for June 26, July 17 and August 24, 2015 respectively. This calendar represents a substantial departure from previous electoral cycles as multiple elections will be held on the same date, necessitating multiple ballots. The underlying changes to polling procedures require a massive voter education campaign if the Burundian electorate is to participate effectively, and widespread confusion avoided.
In response to this challenge, as well as the continual need to advance citizen understanding of the electoral process, IFES is implementing a nationwide civic and voter education campaign with the assistance of six local civil society organizations. The campaign is built around the image box tool, which consists of a series of images illustrating essential democratic principles, such as civic participation, tolerance, inclusion, and nonviolence. In addition, voting procedures, focusing on the changes brought about by the combination of the Communal Council and National Assembly polls, are extensively covered in order to ensure citizens know what to expect on Election Day.
The image box format is designed to enable full participation regardless of educational background and is adaptable to a variety of cultural contexts. Led by trained facilitators, image box sessions illicit discussion and debate among groups of citizens as they are guided toward key conclusions. Equipped with an image box, facilitators identified and trained by IFES’ civil society partners travel throughout their home communes organizing civic and voter education sessions anywhere citizens might gather: markets, schools, churches, etc. In all, approximately 5,720 sessions, each gathering at least thirty participants, will be organized in all 17 provinces of Burundi. This approach, featuring face-to-face intervention, is supplemented by mass media messaging over Burundi’s nationwide radio network. These complementary approaches have been shown to effectively increase citizen understanding of electoral processes and civic participation and will promote peaceful participation in the electoral process.
Ultimately, the consolidation of an inclusive and accountable democracy in Burundi is contingent on the organization of peaceful, fair and transparent elections. This requires a fair and competitive electoral environment where citizens participate freely, effectively and en masse, and election results reflect the will of Burundian voters. By strengthening the capacity of Burundian civil society and media to implement civic and voter education, IFES is working to empower these groups to reach out to the electorate, mobilize voters, and allow the Burundian people to fully participate in the political process.