Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Guinea and Burundi Show Two Faces of African Democracy

While Guinea's elections are praised, Burundi faces accusations of holding an unconstitutional ballot.

Gabriela Perdomo - It is a tense week in Guinea, where the ballots of a presidential election held over the weekend are being counted. Observers in and out of the country are hoping that the success of this election, the first truly democratic process in more than 50 years, will not be broken by its aftermath. Vote-counting has been slow, and poor logistics could hamper the positive mood that has followed the ballot.

Despite a lack of opinion polls, it is widely expected that the ballot will need a second round, since none of the 30 candidates is likely to get more than 50 per cent of the vote. The run-off would be held on Jul. 18.

Meanwhile, miles south-east of Guinea, tensions are running through the roof in Burundi, where another presidential ballot took place yesterday. There is little to celebrate there, as an election that was supposed to take place within the constitutional mandate of multi-party and free democracy ended up with the re-election of the incumbent—and the sole candidate running for office— Pierre Nkurunziza.

Fearing that the presidential elections would mimic widely condemned regional polls conducted last May 24, all of Burundi's opposition candidates announced earlier in June that they would boycott the process. Nkurunziza was left with only one (sham) opponent, Yves Sahinguvu of the Tutsi Union for National Progress (Uprona), who is his first vice-president and close ally. But Sahinguvu failed to register his candidacy on time, and Burundians went to the ballot box facing a one-man race. Voting day was preceded and succeeded with grenade attacks, leaving hundreds wounded.

The election leaves a sour feeling of disappointment for those who trusted that a new constitution enacted in 2005 would finally bring Burundi a step closer to democracy. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that this same constitution is playing a positive role in the ongoing events. Critics of Nkurunziza's sham election are calling for the ballot to be cancelled, saying it is unconstitutional for being an obvious breach of the multi-party, multi-candidate system that is supposed to rule in the country.

Nkurunziza has been in office since 2005, when he was elected by lawmakers. This year's ballot was the first to allow voters to directly elect the country's president by popular vote—hence the importance of a successful process.

If the opposition leadership in Burundi stays on message, and turns this into a fight to protect the young constitution and new democratic system, it will gain legitimacy and strength. It will not be like having truly democratic elections, but it will show Burundians to aim for respecting the rule of law and, down the road, achieve true democracy.

A similar lesson should be the legacy of Guinea's presidential election. Guineans should be proud of the success of their democratic process, and demand for nothing less than what they experienced this weekend in the July run-off.

It was, by no means, expected that Guinea's election would go so well. The country has been the scenario of a series of bizarre events recently, including the non-fatal shooting of President Moussa Dadis Camara by one of his closest aides last December. Camara had succeeded President Lansana Conté after he died in 2008, via a coup d'état. He is now recovering from his serious injuries.

Last weekend's election was held under the interim presidency of Sékouba Konaté, Camara's former defence minister and an army general. Thanks to Konaté, the presidential election became a reality and today Guinea is being praised by observers and leaders around the globe.

Guineans should be proud not only because the ballot itself was peaceful and by all accounts fair, but also because the long list of hopefuls did not include any army officers. A picture of General Konaté casting his ballot on Jun. 27 is worth a thousand words. This is clearly a sign of Guinea's changing political landscape, and a breath of fresh air following decades of military rule.

Guinea's election is yet to be resolved. Results are expected to come in gradually. Possible candidates to contest the run-off include Alpha Condé, a well known anti-junta leader, as well as former prime ministers Sidya Touré and Cellou Dalein Diallo. For now, the country can pride itself in being, at the very least, on the right track towards a full transition to democratic rule.

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