BUJUMBURA, Burundi: Burundians voted Tuesday amid gunfire and grenade blasts, with President Pierre Nkurunziza widely expected to win a third term despite international condemnation and thousands of people fleeing feared violence.
The United States said the government’s dismissal of calls to delay the poll threatened its legitimacy and risked “unravelling the fragile progress” made by the peace deal that ended more than a dozen years of civil war and ethnic massacres in 2006.
At least two people — a policeman and a civilian — were killed in a string of explosions and gunfire overnight. Blasts and shootings were also heard as polls opened shortly after dawn in the capital Bujumbura, the epicentre of three months of anti-government protests.
Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s chief communications advisor, condemned the attacks as “terrorist acts” aimed at “intimidating voters”.
Polling stations visited by AFP in Bujumbura appeared quiet with few queues, although voting was busier in pro-Nkurunziza areas.
Electoral Commission president Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye said turnout was depressed in Bujumbura and southwestern Bururi province but gave an overall figure of 74 percent, comparable to that for last month’s general elections.
Nkurunziza himself turned up on a bicycle to vote in his home village of Buye, where turnout was high with long lines of voters.
Around 3.8 million Burundians were eligible to vote in the polls, which closed at 4:00 pm (1400 GMT). Ndayicariye said results would be known in some 48 hours.
Irregularities were observed in several polling stations in Bujumbura, where an AFP journalist saw blank tally sheets being signed before counting began. State radio said an election official was arrested after being caught red-handed stuffing a ballot box at a polling station outside the capital.
Opposition and civil society groups have denounced Nkurunziza’s candidacy as unconstitutional, with many boycotting the polls.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged calm, calling on all sides to “refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region”.
With the election denounced by the opposition as a sham, the 51-year-old president — a former rebel, born-again Christian and football fanatic — is facing no serious competition. But critics say a win by the incumbent will be a hollow victory, leaving him ruling over a deeply divided nation.
Although eight candidates are on the ballot paper, most have already withdrawn from the race and those remaining are not seen as having a chance against the incumbent, having been unable to campaign due to the unrest and the closure of most independent media.
In one polling station in the capital, voters were seen scrubbing off indelible ink from their fingers to avoid reprisals from opposition supporters boycotting the ballot.
The International Crisis Group think-tank has warned that the situation has all the ingredients to kickstart renewed civil war.
“Despite a facade of pluralism, this is an election with only one candidate, where Burundians already know the outcome,” said the ICG’s Thierry Vircoulon.
Former colonial ruler and key donor Belgium said the polls “do not meet the minimal requirements of inclusiveness and transparency”, and repeated warnings it would “review its cooperation” with Bujumbura.
Anti-Nkurunziza protests have been violently repressed, leaving at least 100 people dead since late April. Many opponents have also fled — joining an exodus of more than 150,000 ordinary Burundians who fear their country may again be engulfed by widespread violence.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Monday around 1,000 people were fleeing each day into Tanzania, crossing the border “through the forest… many travelling in the dark on foot and without belongings.”
In mid-May, rebel generals attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza in a coup. After that failed they launched a rebellion in the north of the country.
Last-ditch crisis talks mediated by Uganda broke down on Sunday.
“They have refused to save Burundi from sliding into an abyss,” said opposition leader Jean Minani, who like almost all others boycotted Tuesday’s poll.
Key opposition leader Agathon Rwasa did not formally withdraw, but said the election could not be free or fair and did not campaign.
Poor and landlocked, Burundi is in the heart of central Africa’s troubled Great Lakes region.
Analysts say renewed conflict in the country could reignite ethnic Hutu-Tutsi violence and bring another humanitarian disaster on the region.
The last civil war in Burundi left at least 300,000 people dead.
Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party scored a widely expected landslide win in last month’s parliamentary polls that were boycotted by the opposition.
UN electoral observers — some of the few international monitors in Tuesday’s poll — said the last round of voting took place in a “climate of widespread fear and intimidation”.
The presidential election is likely to be seen in the same light, diplomats said, meaning Nkurunziza — whose nation is heavily aid-dependent — will probably also face international isolation.