Freeing Burundi’s Vote: The Necessity of an Independent Legislature


Pictured: Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks to the media after casting his vote at the constitutional referendum in Buye, north of Ngozi, in northern Burundi on May 17, 2018. (Photo Credit: Berthier Mugiraneza, Associated Press). 

By Kwadwo A. Boateng

The results of Burundi’s most recent referendum on constitutional amendments see the possible extension of President Nkurunziza’s term until 2034. He has been President of Burundi since August 2005. The results have made the opposition uneasy; however, this is not the first time the President has sought to bypass constitutional term limits. The vulnerability of Burundi’s national legislature has been on display before: Burundi’s Parliament allowed the President to run for re-election in 2015, at the end of his second (and last) term, prompting a crisis that culminated in government forces clashing with protestors.  Parliament must become independent from governmental influence to prevent strongmen from taking advantage of constitutional law.

Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, has secured a constitutional amendment that will enable him to remain in office until 2034.  A referendum held on 17 May extended his presidential powers by approving the amendment. Questions remain about whether Burundi’s National Independent Electoral Commission can become independent of government influence, following the referendum result. It could do so by persuading Burundi’s national legislature to insist on different behavior from its executives at the national level. This could come about in several ways, which are discussed below. Opposition groups in Burundi such as the Union for Peace and Democracy and the Frodebu-Nyakuri party are also (understandably) concerned about the referendum results, because they add to a pattern of undemocratic governance that has existed since the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), became more radicalized following post-conflict elections in 2010.

Unfortunately, Burundi is not alone in this predicament; Nkurunziza is one in a long line of authoritarian leaders who have sought to extend presidential term limits by undermining electoral commissions through legislative manipulation.  Since the 1980s, almost half the countries in Africa have instituted limited presidential terms, but 13 out of 22 presidents have tried to thwart them, 11 of them successfully: Cameroon, Gabon, Guinea, Senegal, Namibia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Togo, and Burundi. They did so by manipulating the constitution, which enabled authoritarian leaders to further entrench themselves without the consent of electoral commissions.

Understanding how national legislature can make electoral commissions autonomous is important in the context of Burundi, because the referendum result has exposed the vulnerability of Burundi’s electoral commission to political influence. It also shows Nkurunziza’s successful manipulation of the electoral process by altering the constitution. This is the second time that he has sought to extend presidential term limits. On April 24, 2015, he announced plans remain president for a third term, triggering demonstrations in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital city.

Nkurunziza’s personal history of bypassing constitutional term limits includes Burundi’s electoral commission as one of many local institutions that he has exploited. According to the head of Burundi’s electoral committee, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, 73.3% of Burundians voted for this constitutional amendment. The nature of the referendum and the cooperation of the electoral commission have been heavily criticized by the international community and the U.S. State Department, which released a statement on May 21 describing the referendum result as “marred by a lack of transparency.” State control of the media and voter intimidation have also contributed to this sense of injustice.

Ironically, one of the few things that might help to make the electoral commission independent from government influence is the national legislature, which Nkurunziza has repeatedly made use of to consolidate his power. The national legislature is a highly potent political tool for relaxing the executive hold of the electoral commission. It is one of the few agents that can constrain the power of an executive. By institutionalizing party systems that allow parliamentary opposition to be heard, it thus makes the judiciary independent and free from control by the ruling party. It is also a tool for achieving democratization by lessening the chance of state corruption. This is important because it is easier for the ruling party to commit fraud if independent electoral-management bodies (EMBs) are compromised due to legislative manipulation. Such manipulation can, for example, include the disqualification of opposition candidates by a ruling party’s leader. Perhaps most importantly, a national legislature that is free from overwhelming government influence can help to gain voters’ confidence in an electoral process.

An independent legislature also has a strong positive effect on government accountability. This was shown in March 2017, when the South African government reversed its decision to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC), following a challenge in the Pretoria High Court by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Guillermo O’Donnell, an Argentine political scientist, calls this “horizontal accountability,” which allows an independent legislature to effectively keep executives in check and accountable for their actions.

The National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has so far had its power virtually unchecked by the judiciary, which is under its control. It has preserved Nkurunziza’s power in several ways: by intimidating Constitutional Court judges in 2015 to win a third term and by deploying its youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and security forces to target opponents using murder, rape, disappearances, and torture. Nkurunziza’s re-election for a third term in July 2015 had consequences beyond constitutional violation. These included nationwide protests, which sparked government confrontations, causing some 250,000 Burundians to flee the country in 2016. Recent data from the UN refugee agency released in December show that more than 420,000 people have sought refuge abroad since 2015. This figure comprises ethnic Tutsis who have been displaced ever since they escaped violence in urban guerrilla warfare between government forces and rebel groups. The violence has escalated steadily as Nkurunziza has aggressively sought to dismantle constitutional constraints to his authority.

Burundi’s judiciary and electoral committee was probably in favor of the recent constitutional amendment because the months leading up to the vote were marked by state repression. Government forces harassed, killed and intimidated political opponents of the constitutional change, testifying to widespread and deeply entrenched impunity for political elites and compliant local authorities. Evidence of this violence is detailed in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, stating that state agents and Imbonerakure members have “used fear and repression to ensure the vote goes in Nkurunziza’s favor.” This has continued since December 12, 2017, when Nkurunziza announced the referendum. Human Rights Watch has confirmed 19 cases of abuse since that date, all of which were connected to the intimidation of Burundian voters so that they would support the amendment. On January 18, a political coalition of opponents called Amizero y’Abarundi (“the hope of the Burundians,”) claimed that 42 of its members had been arbitrarily arrested since December 12th and that some had been beaten.

The impunity with which Nkurunziza’s regime has conducted itself displays of some of the many tools that authoritarian leaders use to retain power beyond constitutional maneuvering. These include voter intimidation; neopatrimonialism through corrupt state institutions; violent targeting of political opposition; and silencing the voice of civil society. Burundi’s most recent referendum is both an affront to democracy and a ruse, because it tries to convince Burundian voters and the international community that Nkurunziza achieved this result democratically with support from the electoral commission. Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s Press Secretary, emphasized the “peace” under which the referendum took place as evidence of a fair and free election process. In contrast, ordinary Burundians want real peace in the region, after years of violent government crackdowns on dissidents.

It seems unlikely that Nkurunziza’s regime will review its legislative malpractice for some time. This regime has already committed voting fraud; now, its excessive influence over nominally independent EMBs has reached unprecedented heights. Prospects for restoring Burundi’s pre-civil war democratic gains appear grim after the referendum outcome. However, the relationship between the national legislature, the political environment, and the electoral commissions can show some prospect of curbing Nkurunziza’s power.

Kwadwo A. Boateng is a Ghanaian graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who grew up in Johannesburg. He holds an Honors Degree in History from Trinity College, Dublin, and has worked with a number of organizations including the International Crisis Group, the International Rescue Committee, UBS Wealth Management’s UK impact investing team, and Rolling Stone Magazine. Most recently, he has joined Omidyar Network’s Digital Identity team in Washington, D.C. as a consultant, focusing on expanding digital rights in Africa.

“Youth is never a handicap, but a new vantage point from which we can hope to inspire the good in others.”

Happy Thanksgiving! Catch up on what people are reading.

It turns out that yesterday was not the busiest air travel day of the year in the United States.  Neither is Sunday. (I know, I’m shocked too.)  Statistics don’t help you much, though, if you’re currently stuck in an airport, sandwiched between your fellow disgruntled passengers in an overcrowded waiting area, or on a train or bus just trying to get to a loved one’s home for Turkey Day.

Never fear, though, we here at the Democracy & Governance Program have got you covered.  While you’re in the air, on the rails, or on the road (assuming you’re not doing the driving), here are a few of the best democracy & governance reads from around the web the last few weeks.

-First up, for those of you in our international audience who may not be clear on what today’s Thanksgiving holiday is or how it came about, the good folks over at Newsweek have a helpful primer.  How Americans celebrate has changed over the years too, as this report from NPR outlines.  Among the stranger of American political traditions, the holiday now includes a presidential pardon for a turkey.  And while most Americans gather around a less-fortunate turkey (or tofurkey) and stuffing, we are otherwise united only in our inability to agree about what else is necessary at the Thanksgiving table.

-Worried that Thanksgiving dinner conversation will degrade into an argument about how democracy isn’t working and our institutions have all gone down the tubes?  Here’s some interactive advice for steering the conversation in a more constructive direction.  At the very least, you can at least take comfort that you’re not alone.  Check out this recent report from Georgetown University’s Baker Center, that finds that less than half of Americans are satisfied with how democracy is working in the United States.  And lest you think the United States is alone in this, the Latinobarómetro survey released its latest report last week, finding that only 24% of Latin Americans are satisfied with democracy in their country, the lowest level in the survey’s two decades of polling.

-The New York Times’ report on Facebook executives’ handling of other governments’ efforts to sway American voters and other issues of privacy and transparency is damning.  It’s also worth reading in full.

-It’s just over a year since Robert Mugabe was pushed out of power in Zimbabwe.  The country is still far from qualifying as a democracy. Mwita Chacha and Jonathan Powell explain why over at The Monkey Cage.  (If you want a refresher on what actually happened last year, check out our own Lexi Merrick Boiro’s analysis here at D&S Online.)

-On earlier this month, Kate Cronin-Furman argued that the United States’ recent history of rewarding “progress” on human rights in Myanmar and Sri Lanka set the bar far too low.  The piece has been making the rounds and prompts much-needed reflection on walking the tightrope between incentivizing reform and having realistic expectations.

-How can corrupt and struggling democratic governments be moved to address the glaring levels of violence in their countries?  An interview with Rachel Kleinfeld explores the answers provided in her new book.

Good luck with your travels, and Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at the DG program.  May your turkey be perfectly roasted, your dinner conversation civil, and your salad not made with romaine.

Jennifer Dresden, PhD, is Associate Director of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University. 

An Anatomy of Corruption: Haiti

By Georges A. Fauriol

The past decade has convincingly brought to a close a period of global democratic growth and consolidation underway since the late 1970s – Samuel Huntington’s “third wave.”  We have instead now witnessed twelve years of democratic decline. This is fueled by the resurgence of expansionist authoritarianism armed with a vision strategically eager to compete with the norms and institutions of democracy; worse, there is also a measurable decline by established democracies in their commitment to democratic governing principles – in the aggregate, this is Larry Diamond’s “democratic recession.”

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The Highs and Lows of the Midterms for Democracy

Photo: Ilhan Omar, MN-05 Representative-Elect. (Photo credit: Lorie Shaull)

By Democracy & Society Editors

The Democratic party performed about as well as expected in the midterm elections, perhaps restoring confidence to the electoral prediction industry. Though the success of the Democratic party in the House of Representatives can be taken as a sign that Americans are rejecting some of the more authoritarian aspects of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the conduct of candidates’ during the campaign and after the election should leave (small-d) democrats pessimistic. The Democratic party’s new majority in the House will place a check on President Donald Trump’s power, but the 2018 midterms served to highlight the profound problems of American democracy.

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The Rohingya Crisis: Is Aung San Suu Kyi Turning Back on Media Freedom and Human Rights?

By Han Wool Jung

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese (Myanmarese) Noble Peace prize winner who was under house arrest for pro-democracy activism, came to power as State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016 with a considerably free election. In the beginning, her victory was an auspicious win for the Myanmar democratization process. However, the prolonged ethnic conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, the Rohingya, has turned into a genocide. In addition, the media, responsible for promoting freedom of information and dispersing injustice done to the Rohingya, is still severely repressed. As shown by recent imprisonment of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were investigating the brutal violence on the Rohingya, the military is controlling the coverage of the violence. All these have incited international outrage against the Myanmar military and the government, and especially Suu Kyi for not promoting media freedom and attempting to end the vicious cycle of violence and discrimination on the Rohingya.

Continue reading “The Rohingya Crisis: Is Aung San Suu Kyi Turning Back on Media Freedom and Human Rights?”

Has Saudi Arabia Become a Monarchy of Fear?

This article was originally published by Arab Centre Washington DC and is republished with their permission from 

By Daniel Brumberg

The murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi reminded Americans that the United States remains aligned with Arab leaders who regularly repress, imprison, and kill opponents for expressing their political views. Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 was an especially gruesome crime. To be sure, Washington has often backed regimes that employ lethal violence on a far grander scale. Egypt’s current president, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, took power in a July 2013 military coup that ended the country’s brief and tumultuous democratic experiment. Less than a month later, Egyptian security forces slaughtered some 800 civilian protesters in Rabaa Square. Sisi’s government, backed by the judiciary, then proceeded to jail tens of thousands of Egyptians on vague or trumped-up charges. Yet President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, did not protest and even praised Sisi and his allies for “restoring democracy.” From a strictly moral point of view, then, was Kerry’s statement worse than President Donald Trump’s assertion that Khashoggi’s killing was probably the work of “rogue killers”? This assertion was taken up by Saudi leaders who proceeded to dismissalleged conspirators from their positions and imprison other collaborators—acts that are nevertheless seen by the world as only a cover-up for perfidious behavior by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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Contemporary Geopolitical Changes and Democratic Transitions

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (via Kremlin)

By Avram Reisman

At a time when democracy is in recession and facing new challenges, it is worth looking back on essential literature written when democratic change was similarly challenged by authoritarian powers. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, by Guillermo O’Donnell and Phillippe Schmitter, was a paradigmatic publication that set parameters and expectations for democratic transitions in U.S. policy and for democratic opposition groups in many parts of the world. Looking with a contemporary critical lens, it’s clear the sands of time have eroded the model’s validity. However, with some adaptation, the model provides some direction for new international landscape.

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US Midterm Election: Call for Contributors

Are you anticipating the 2018 Blue Wave? Do you expect the midterms to exceed, meet, or fail to live up to expectations? Do you see important consequences for US democracy on the horizon? Democracy & Society is seeking up to two writers who are able to commit to writing reaction blog articles to the 2018 US election the day after the election. Proposals for reaction articles will be considered until October 26th. Please include in your email an aspect of the election you plan to highlight. Those interested in writing prediction articles are also welcome to submit an article or proposal no later than Friday, November 2nd. Please direct all submissions or inquiries to

As always, Democracy & Society welcomes submissions on other comparative and international politics topics as well. If you have an idea for a blog, please feel free to reach out to our editors as well at the email address above. We are happy to assist in the development of an article and answer any questions.

Disorder in the Court: Confirming a New Supreme Court Justice amidst Bitter Partisanship

By Matison Hearn-Desautels

Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation process has provoked a nationwide dispute over the state of American democracy, partisanship, and the lack of accountability for men in power accused of sexual assault. His confirmation on Saturday solidified a conservative majority in the Supreme Court for years to come. The 5-4 majority could determine the outcomes of key juridical matters ranging from a possible indictment of the President, to a potential repeal of Roe versus Wade.

The Senate Judiciary Committee moved to confirm Kavanaugh on Friday following a week-long FBI investigation into the allegations made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while the two were in high school.

Continue reading “Disorder in the Court: Confirming a New Supreme Court Justice amidst Bitter Partisanship”

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