Burundi on Friday looked set to amend its 2005 constitution to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza two new seven-year terms, with preliminary results from a majority of the 17 provinces showing a potential win for the YES side.
A YES win was expected, as the ruling party, which is pushing the law changes, went all out to woo its rural support base to pass them.
“It was Burundians who called the referendum during the national dialogue,” said President Nkurunziza after casting his vote in his home province of Ngozi. “Today is an important day for Burundians.”
Prosper Ntahorwamiye, Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) spokesman, said voting had been peaceful.
“We are working on the vote counting to make sure the results are announced as early as possible,” Mr Ntahorwamiye told The EastAfrican in Bujumbura.
But Human Rights Watch said at least 15 people had been killed and six raped during the campaigns.
CENI said more than five million people had registered to vote, and by Friday mid-day, the preliminary results showed that over 90 per cent turned out to vote.
In Bujumbura, there were long queues from as early as 5am on Thursday, and the electoral body said there were no hitches. The polling stations opened at 6am and closed at 4pm.
But there were reports that some people were being forced to vote to avoid being beaten or arrested.
Foreign journalists were mostly denied access to the country.
In the run-up to the vote, security forces and the Imbonerakure youth militia created a climate of fear and intimidation, said Human Rights Watch. It also reported widespread abductions and beatings of opposition supporters.
“Burundi’s referendum took place amid widespread abuse, fear and pressure a climate that is clearly not conducive to free choice,” said Ida Sawyer, HRW Central Africa director.
She said government officials and the Imbonerakure clearly knew there would be no penalties for their violence against real and perceived opponents to allow President Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD to maintain their grip on power.
The draft constitution ushers in many changes that will have a bearing on the country’s politics, governance and foreign relations.
Article 50 protects Burundians from extradition.
This seems to have been driven by Burundi’s efforts to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, which came into effect on in October 27 2017. But the court said that it retains jurisdiction over crimes committed up to October 26, 2017.
Bujumbura’s pulling out from the ICC kicked off in April 2017, after the court announced that it had launched preliminary investigations on the crimes committed in the country since 2015. With government officials accused of crimes against humanity, the new laws are expected to protect them from being extradited.
Climate of intimidation
Burundi’s relations with the European Union are expected to further deteriorate. Ahead of the referendum, the EU expressed concerns about the “climate of intimidation and repression and marked with absence of consensual approach between different societal and political groups.”
Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, said that the bloc remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in the country, which undermines any initiative for reconciliation, peace and justice.
Although the draft constitution retains the ethnic quotas, Article 28 allows a five-year period after which the Senate can review them.
Politically, it gives the president more powers to deal with dissent, allowing parties to recall legislators and sack them.
A sacked legislator is technically locked out of subsequent elections. The new law says that candidates may be nominated by political parties or coalitions of political parties or may stand as independents.
To be considered independent, the candidate must not have claimed association with any political party for at least a year.
A member of a political party may stand for election as an independent candidate only after the expiry of a two-year period since being removed or resigned from his party of origin.