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Trouble ahead for Burundi as president set for hollow victory

24 July 2015, 09:17

Bujumbura - Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza is set to win a controversial third term in office, but analysts say his victory will be hollow, with the country divided, isolated and facing aid cuts.

Nkurunziza's candidacy was branded by opponents as unconstitutional and a violation of a peace deal that ended 13 years of civil war in 2006, but the president has succeeded in fighting off street protests and an attempted coup, all the while ignoring international criticism.

Presidential elections were held on Tuesday, but an opposition boycott, coupled with the stifling of debate with the closure of independent media, made it a de facto one-horse race. The results are expected to be released later Friday.

"Now the hard part starts for Nkurunziza, because Burundi is in a pre-conflict situation," said Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher with the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"There has been an increase in armed violence, splits within the government multiply and show that power is challenged from within," he said. "Burundians are afraid and continue to leave the country in anticipation of a conflict, the economy has slowed and agricultural production is likely to decline."

Even before the months of violence that preceded the elections, the landlocked central African nation was ranked among the world's poorest.

A Burundian analyst and researcher, who asked not to be named, said the president would be starting his third consecutive five-year mandate with a key handicap -- his lack of legitimacy.

"The second is economic and social, because the country is already in a recession. The loss of some aid coupled with a decrease in domestic revenue will be very painful," said the analyst.

"But his biggest challenge will be one of peace and security, given the violence and divisions brought about by his candidacy," he said. "Part of the opposition has radicalised and increasingly thinks he only understands one language, that of violence."

In the wake of the failed coup, some section of the army have regrouped, launching a rebellion in the north of the country.

Faced with these challenges, Nkurunziza must choose between offering a gesture of peace to his frustrated opponents, or taking an even harder line.

Diplomats say Nkurunziza will be under pressure to offer concessions to the opposition and key donors, and sources from the ruling CNDD-FDD party have signalled a series of conciliatory measures will be taken.

These could include the formation of a national unity government, the release of demonstrators who were detained during weeks of street protests and the reopening of private radio stations that were shut during the coup attempt.

"For the short-term, Nkurunziza will make concessions, hoping for a softening of the positions of international partners," said Vircoulon. "But this will not work in practice because there is nothing left to negotiate, and the opposition has radicalised and expanded."

The Burundian analyst also said that in seeking to maintain his position and fight off coup plotters and defectors, Nkurunziza has purged intellectuals and moderates in favour of hardliners, "who will want to go all the way rather than seek compromise".

These hardliners mainly include the old guard of the CNDD-FDD, a former Hutu rebel group that came out on top after the 1993-2006 civil war that left 300,000 dead.

According to French academic Christian Thibon, Burundi's leadership may well choose to follow the path of the isolationist, paranoid and authoritarian Horn of Africa state of Eritrea.

"Burundi has gone from being a badly-managed state of law to being a lawless state," said the Burundian analyst. "This drift will accelerate, even if the regime will try to make some cosmetic gestures."

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