By Mara J. Roberts
The small country of Burundi had its presidential election today – only the second election since the county’s civil war ended in 2004. Burundi is a little-known country surrounded by highly visible neighbors—Rwanda to the north, the Congo to the west, and Tanzania to the southeast. Yet the success or failure of Burundi’s elections could have far-reaching consequences for the region. If the post-election period is peaceful, Burundi could set the tone for other East African countries slated to hold elections in the next eight months. Conversely, if the post-election period sees violence, Burundi may saddle its neighbors with yet another wave of refugees. During Burundi’s 13-year civil war, 200,000 refugees sought sanctuary in Tanzania and other neighboring states. Over 50,000 of those only returned to Burundi this year. A peaceful election at this juncture is critical to the development and stability of the small nation. Sadly, early post-election reports from Burundi are not optimistic. The only candidate on the Burundian ballot was the incumbent, Nkurunziza, and voter turn-out was low, thanks to a boycott by the opposition and persistent fears of violence, which materialized in grenade attacks across the country. Though it is too soon to reach any conclusions, all indicators suggest that the government in Burundi is in crisis. For Burundi to achieve true democracy, it must not only assure the peaceful transition of power, but it must also encourage a well-rounded ballot with diverse candidates and a high voter turn-out among its citizens. Today’s election suggests that these reforms may be years away.