NAIROBI, Kenya — Standing shoulder to shoulder without masks or gloves, throngs of voters in Burundi waited in long lines on Wednesday to mark their ballots to replace the country’s long-reigning, autocratic president.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, has ruled the country with impunity for the last 15 years, evading international efforts to call him to account for human rights abuses. More recently, he has downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus.
The competitive race to elect his successor — the front-runners are a member of the president’s party and a longtime critic — has been marked by arrests and the killings of political opponents.
Burundi, a small, landlocked nation in Central Africa and one of the world’s poorest countries, has suffered through decades of violence and instability since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962.
It now finds itself caught in the grip of a political system focused more on preserving power than on protecting the public’s health, as the campaign season has shown. Last week, the government expelled four representatives of the World Health Organization who were in the country to help coordinate Burundi’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The lives of Burundian people are being sacrificed by their government, risking an imminent explosion of the pandemic in the coming days,” said Anschaire Nikoyagize, the head of Ligue Iteka, a Burundian human rights organization, who lives in exile.
On Wednesday, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter were cut off — a measure that digital rights groups had expressed concern about before the election. Human rights groups said they had received reports of harassment of opposition members and incidents of voter fraud, but with social media blocked, they were unable to confirm them.
Willy Nyamitwe, a senior adviser to President Nkurunziza, said on Twitter that contrary to “rumors,” the internet was still working in Burundi. He did not specifically address whether the government had restricted access to social media.
More than five million Burundians were expected to vote at about 1,500 polling stations to choose not just a new president, but also lawmakers and local officials.
There are seven candidates running for president, but the two top contenders are Evariste Ndayishimiye, the secretary general of the ruling party, who is endorsed by the current president, and Agathon Rwasa, an ex-rebel leader and longtime opposition figure.
Experts say that this election could be the first competitive vote since a civil war that began in 1993 and ended in 2005. The official election results are expected to be released on June 4.
But the campaign has been marred by violence. Between January and March, Ligue Iteka, the local human rights group, documented 67 killings, in addition to 14 extrajudicial executions, 15 cases of gender-based violence, 23 cases of torture, 204 arbitrary arrests and six abductions. Journalists have also been threatened and arrested, according to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The violence reflects the reign of Mr. Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005 and whose authoritarian rule has been shaped by human rights violations and mass displacement.
The elections were the first since 2015, when Mr. Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term led to widespread protests. After a thwarted coup attempt, unrest across the country triggered a crackdown by security forces, which killed hundreds and caused more than 400,000 people to flee to neighboring countries.
A United Nations inquiry into the crisis documented extrajudicial killings, torture and rape committed by intelligence officers, the police and the youth league of the ruling party, known as the Imbonerakure. After the U.N. urged the International Criminal Court to begin a prosecution, Burundi withdrew its membership from the court altogether in 2017.
Amid allegations of political repression, voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed a referendum that extended presidential terms from five to seven years and gave more powers to the president. But last year, Mr. Nkurunziza, 55, surprised his country by announcing that he would not run for another term.
The ruling party in January picked as its candidate Mr. Ndayishimiye, a former army general who worked in the president’s office and served as cabinet minister for interior and security. Mr. Ndayishimiye says he wants to reduce poverty, boost infrastructure projects and improve agriculture, considered the backbone of the economy.
Presenting himself as the change candidate, he has railed at the injustices committed by the ruling party and criticized the lavish send-off conferred on Mr. Nkurunziza — including a $500,000 payment and the title of “Supreme Guide of Patriotism.”
“Life is becoming more and more unbearable,” Mr. Rwasa recently told a packed stadium in Ngozi Province in the country’s north. “The time for change has come.”
The general election faces the prospect of limited external scrutiny, experts say, leaving open the possibility of manipulation of the results. After downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, the government in early May said it would quarantine election observers from the East African Community for 14 days upon arrival to ensure they didn’t have Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. So the observers stayed home.
Domitile Mugisha, a 28-year-old teacher in the port city of Bujumbura, said of the election, “It is a process that has never been transparent; therefore, its results are always criticized.”
In recent years, the authorities have tried to avoid international scrutiny by blocking independent monitors, including by closing the U.N. Human Rights Office in Burundi last year. The country is also self-financing its polls after donors, including the European Union, cut off funding after the 2015 political crisis.
Given all these factors, there are concerns that the elections “will effectively take place behind closed doors,” said Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The risk of Covid-19 adds a critical dimension to the process of holding this election. From the outbreak’s onset, the authorities cited divine protection for keeping the country open and for holding large campaign rallies.
And even after reporting 42 positive cases and one death, officials have continued to insist that the virus would not affect the country as severely as it has others worldwide.
“Aren’t you crowded here together? Do you have any problem with that?” Mr. Nkurunziza asked a gathering in Ngozi in early May. “Let us clap our hands for our God because he is with us.”
At polling stations, voters were asked to wash their hands while poll workers donned masks and gloves. But temperatures were not checked because there was not enough money to buy equipment, said Jean Bosco Girukwishaka, a health ministry spokesman.
David Kiwuwa, director of the Center for Advanced International Studies at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China, said that while the likelihood of large-scale ethnic violence remained low, “the possibility of increased postelection violence by challengers to the status quo is highly likely, as long as the regime continues to harass opponents and squeeze challengers out of the political space.”
Voters, in interviews, pleaded with the parties to leave behind violence and come up with solutions that would improve their lives.
André Nahimana, 29, an activist for tax justice, said that “no candidate was able to objectively show how he would mobilize reliable resources to finance his program without bleeding an ordinary citizen who is becoming poorer.”
“Everyone promises wonders,” said Ernest Ndikumana, 36, a shopkeeper in the capital, Gitega. “But attaining that is impossible.”