Burundi: A Pre-Election Assessment Report, April 1992
The winds of change are blowing across the African continent have not left untouched the small
nation of Burundi. These continent-wide trends, along with a recurrence of ethnic violence in
1988, provoked the government of President Buyoya to set the country with renewed
commitment on the path of national unity and reconciliation through the mechanism of a
transition to multiparty democracy.
In 1989, President Buyoya charged a National Commission with studying the question of national unity. The Commission's report became a focal point for discussion of the interrelated
issues of ethnic conflict and democracy. The Charter of National Unity that grew out
of those discussions was ratified by an overwhelming majority of the people of Burundi in a
referendum in 1991. The momentum of change continued with the drafting of a new
constitution that established a framework to legalize opposition political parties and which was
ratified in a national referendum in March 1992. It is projected that the laws permitting the
registration of political parties will soon be passed by the government, and that multiparty
elections for legislature and president will take place by early 1993.
Despite this undeniable progress toward national reconciliation and democracy, many problems
remain to be resolved. Some political groups perceive the government as a merely cosmetic
change from the previous regime dominated by the ruling single party UPRONA. Indeed, the
government, while including a wider range of political elites, still rules by decree, with little
popular input or control. Inter-ethnic tensions remain high, as evidenced by renewed violence
between the main ethnic groups in November 1991. Accusations of human rights abuses by the
government and by security and law enforcement bodies continue to be brought to the attention of international human rights organizations. The existing laws, and even the new Constitution and Charter of National Unity, continue to put constraints on political freedom which could prove detrimental to the establishment of a true multi-party democracy.
In late March and early April 1992, a team of election experts was sent to Burundi by the
International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), at the invitation of the Government of
Burundi and the U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura, to conduct a Pre-Election Assessment. This
assessment mission was financed through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The
IFES assessment team was comprised of a Canadian election official from Alberta, a Dutch parliamentarian, and an American political economist. Arriving three weeks after the
referendum ratifying the new Constitution but before the promulgation of a new law legalizing
and governing political parties, the IFES team found itself in Burundi at a watershed moment
in its history. The rhetorical commitment to democracy by all with whom the team met was
high. Many steps, however, remained to be taken in turning that rhetorical commitment into
a reality. The IFES team, both while in-country and in this Pre-Election Assessment Report,
has made a number of recommendations for .actions which it feels can help to ensure that
democracy will take root in Burundi and that free and fair multi-party elections for legislature
and president will take place.
One group of recommendations focuses on revisions to the Electoral Code. The 1982 Electoral
Code served the Government well for the past ten years. The Government now is committed
to changing the code to accommodate a multi-party democracy. Much will have to be done
quickly to enable democratic elections to occur within the next twelve months. Changes in the
election system must be effected to protect the secrecy of the ballot and to provide checks
against fraud, two of the minimum conditions set by both domestic and international
expectations for legitimate elections. Establishing an electoral system that the population will
trust and believe in is the ultimate goal, and a fully revised Electoral Code is the first step in
attaining that goal.
The election calendar has not yet been set; however, early 1993 seems to be the likely time for
presidential and legislative elections. A concern regarding the election schedule is that political
parties are not yet legal and there is a fear that an early election would allow insufficient time
for new parties to organize and be able to compete effectively on an even field with the long
dominant UPRONA party.
Along with the Electoral Code and calendar, another essential element of the preparations for
multi-party elections is the freedom of the press and access to the media. The second Article
of a Presidential Decree No.1/01 of 04/02/92 states categorically that "La Presse est fibre."
It goes on to say that the press is subject to restrictions set by law, restrictions that are, in the
view of the IFES team, not conducive to the free exchange of ideas and to the requirements of
an open, multi-party election campaign.
Playing a vital role in the democratic transition now underway in Burundi are two important
institutions, the church and the military. Also critical to the transition process is the ethnic
issue. All of these topics are addressed in detail in this report. The church continues to play
an important stabilizing role in Burundi, with renewed vigor since President Buyoya took
power in 1987. Its contribution to society is acknowledged by the Government and especially
by the Burundi people. The churches are involved deeply in the fields of education, health and
social services throughout the nation. The role of the military is an uneasy and changing one
for Burundians. As in most African countries, the economic crisis and depression did not pass
by Burundi without significantly affecting an already weak subsistence farm economy. The
large majority of the population live from farming on very small plots of land weakened by
mismanagement, erosion and archaic farming methods.