Election campaigns for presidential and legislative seats in Burundi have kicked off ahead of the May 20 General Election, putting the country at risk of suffering a surge in new Covid-19 infections from close contact at the massive political rallies.
Burundi’s ruling party, CNDD-FDD, kicked off its campaigns in the country’s new political capital Gitega on April 27, while the main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa started his campaigns in his native home-town of Ngozi.
Outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza introduced the CNDD-FDD presidential candidate Eavriste Ndayishimiye to thousands of supporters in Bugendana and described him as “a lucky man.”
“We from the CNDD-FDD named the term from 2015 to 2020 God’s term because we went through many challenges and overcame them,” said President Nkurunziza. The outgoing leader’s decision to run for another term in office in 2015 sparked violence across the country, which saw hundreds lose their lives while thousands fled to neighbouring countries. The ruling party’s flag bearer Mr Ndayishimiye has vowed to unite Burundians and end ethnic tensions that have plagued the country for decades.
However, the close proximity of people at political rallies has sparked concerns that coronavirus infections could spike in the country. The country has 11 reported cases and one death so far, even as global figures soared to nearly 3.3 million infections and more than 234,000 deaths as at May 1. Four of the positive cases have fully recovered.
Countries such as Spain, Italy and the US have suffered heavy death tolls after they reportedly ignored health experts’ warnings to enforce social distancing when the pandemic hit their shores. The World Health Organization has advised against mass gatherings such as those in political rallies.
The landlocked country has closed its borders to try and stop spread of the virus, only letting in cargo trucks. Residents have also been advised to wash their hands frequently and avoid handshakes, but life is largely carrying on as normal. Health officials provided hand sanitisers and measured body temperatures of supporters at the entrance to the campaigning ground for the ruling party candidate in Bugendana, but there was no social distancing in the field.
Seven candidates who are running for the presidency will hold campaign rallies for three weeks. The government has insisted that elections will be held on May 20 regardless of the pandemic. Political analysts have questioned the integrity of the elections due to the lack of observer missions, but have lauded the impending change in the office of the president.
“The good thing is that there will be change in the country as whoever takes over will want to leave their own legacy, however there is concern about their credibility as there is no observer mission in the country,” political science lecturer at the University of Burundi, Simeone Barumwete, told The EastAfrican in Bujumbura.
Restricted political space is also a concern in the country as some opposition leaders have reported harassment by security organs. “We’re just starting the campaigns but already abuses and arrests have been reported by opposition members, this isn’t good for the country,” said Mr Barumwete.
The seemingly lopsided political field is seen as giving the ruling party candidate Mr Ndayishimiye a head start in the polls. Main opposition leader Mr Rwasa, has raised concerns over increased intimidation and arrests of his supporters prior to the elections.
“More than two hundred of them were arrested but this won’t stop us from winning the elections because the ruling party has failed the country for 15 years,” said Mr Rwasa. Thousands of supporters chanted his party slogans as he kicked off his campaigns in his native province of Ngozi.
“The first day of the campaign went well but our supporters were blocked from joining us by security personnel,” he added. Ethnic divisions have led to decades of civil war ever since Burundi gained independence in 1962, costing thousands of lives.
The Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) said that the health ministry will provide political parties and CENI officials with equipment to measure the body temperatures of supporters during the campaigns and elections.