Burundi goes to the polls on Monday with the president defiant in his controversial bid for a third term in power, despite weeks of unrest that forced thousands to flee and prompted international calls for a delay.
On the eve of the election, a top party official and parliament head, Pie Ntavyohanyuma, said he had joined about 127,000 Burundians who have fled the country, denouncing president Pierre Nkurunziza’s “illegal” bid to stay in power for a third term.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has echoed calls for the elections to be delayed after the opposition said it would not take part, as Burundi faces its worst crisis since its civil war ended nine years ago.
Ntavyohanyuma told the broadcaster France 24 on Sunday: “I would like to say to him [Nkurunziza] that the mandate he wants to have is illegal. I would like to say to him that forcing through the election is senseless.”
Burundi vice-president calls on president to quit
More than 70 have been killed in weeks of violence and a failed coup sparked by Nkurunziza’s bid to stay in power. There has been a string of grenade attacks in recent days.
Several top officials – including the deputy vice-president, Gervais Rufyikiri, and members of the election commission and constitutional court – have also fled the poverty-stricken, landlocked country.
But the government has defied all requests for a delay, and the electoral commission said on Sunday that all was ready for polling day.
“Everything is ready in the country,” the election commission chief, Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye, said Sunday. All voting material had been delivered to more than 11,000 polling stations.
The African Union announced on Sunday that it would not act as an observer in the parliamentary polls because the conditions were not right for “credible elections”.
“Noting that the necessary conditions are not met for the organisation of free, fair, transparent and credible elections … the AU commission will not observe the local and parliamentary elections,” the commission’s chairwoman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said.
Almost five million people are registered to vote, but the opposition is boycotting the polls, claiming it is not possible to hold a fair vote.
Voting for the parliamentary and local elections begins at 6am (4am GMT), and the presidential vote is due to follow on 15 July.
Ndayicariye said he had not received any official notification confirming the opposition withdrawal from the vote.
“This is nothing new in Burundi,” he said. “In Africa, boycott is another way of doing politics.” The opposition also boycotted polls in 2010.
The opposition leader, Charles Nditije, insisted, however, that the letter announcing a boycott had been handed to the commission, and accused it of “lying” to pretend the poll will be credible.
Burundi was plunged into turmoil in late April when Nkurunziza launched his drive for a third consecutive five-year term, triggering widespread protests.
Opponents say his bid for another term is unconstitutional and violates a peace accord in 2006 that paved the way to end 13 years of civil war.
Civil society groups backed the boycott in a joint statement calling on voters to skip the “sham elections” and urging the international community “not to recognise the validity” of the polls.
The ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, the fearsome Imbonerakure – whose name means “the Watchmen” or, literally, “Those Who See Far” – has been accused by the UN of waging a campaign of intimidation and violence.