BUJUMBURA – Polling stations opened Wednesday in Burundi for a presidential election that is proceeding despite the coronavirus pandemic and a tense campaign marked by violence and repression, witnesses and AFP journalists said.
“The vote is open,” said Prosper Sindayihebura, president of a polling booth at Bugera primary school in central Mwarao province, which opened shortly after six am (0400 GMT) to allow the first voter, a man in his 30s, to cast his ballot.
“We received the election materials yesterday and were able to be ready on time,” Sindayihebura added.
The election marks the end of Pierre Nkurunziza’s often tumultuous reign, after the president announced he would not run again after 15 years in power.
His decision to stand for a third term in 2015 — a bid fiercely resisted by the opposition, which said it was unconstitutional — thrust Burundi into a violent political crisis that left at least 1,200 people dead and drove 400,000 others from the country.
Seven candidates are running for the presidency but the race is seen as between Nkurunziza’s successor, army general Evariste Ndayishimye and veteran opposition leader Agathon Rwasa.
The 5.1 million Burundian voters have until four pm (1400 GMT) to elect not just their new president, but parliamentarians and local councillors, the latter who in turn appoint the members of the Senate.
Each polling station in the small, landlocked country has three ballot boxes: blue for the presidential election, green for the legislative and red for the local.
Voters choose their candidate by pressing their thumbprint on the ballot paper next to their name in indelible ink.
AFP journalists and witnesses said polling stations had also opened in Bujumbura, the economic capital and main city in Burundi.
Social networks had been shut down from at least one hour before voting began, with access only possible via a virtual private network.
The campaign was marred by repression and arbitrary arrests, raising fears of violence when the results are announced. The election commission is expected to unveil the results on Monday or Tuesday next week.