On May 17th, voters in Burundi went to the polls to decide whether to amend the country’s Constitution to extend presidential terms from 5 to 7 years. It is widely believed that the amendments will reset previously served terms, allowing President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for two more terms in office. Other amendments to the constitution would expand presidential powers and place restrictions on independent candidates and coalitions of such candidates.Some of these amendments run counter to the power-sharing principles enshrined in the Arusha Agreement which helped to end Burundi’s civil war.
According to the Electoral Commission, some 73 percent of 4.7 million voters supported the constitutional amendments, while 19 percent voted against. As a result, President Nkurunziza, who first assumed the Presidency in 2005, could conceivably rule Burundi until 2034.
However, the voting was fraught with problems, said U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert in a written statement.“The United States notes that the referendum process in Burundi was marred by a lack of transparency, the suspension of media outlets, and attempts to pressure voters.
The government allowed vigorous campaigning by the opposition during the designated two-week campaign period, but numerous cases of harassment and repression of referendum opponents in the months preceding the vote contributed to a climate of fear and intimidation.The absence of independent observers also undermines confidence in the reported result.”
In the months preceding the vote, there were numerous reports of abuse and intimidation. Human Rights Watch issued a report stating it documented violations and abuses by state security forces, intelligence services, members of the ruling party’s youth league – the Imbonerakure – and others close to the ruling party, in the year and a half leading up to the referendum.
“We remain concerned that passage of the revised constitution will be interpreted as resetting presidential term limits,” wrote Heather Nauert.“We recall the ruling party’s commitment under the Pretoria Protocol to respect the principles of the Arusha Agreement, including respect for term limits.
“Media restrictions, arbitrary arrests, and harsh sentences for human rights defenders signals continuing limitations on civic and political space in Burundi.We call on the government to respect its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association,” she wrote.
“The United States supports the Burundian people and hopes for a future in which they enjoy vibrant and sustainable economic growth, security, and fundamental freedoms.”