“The party has decided that I am party leader”
The invitation states that the training will start at 8.30 am precisely. We are therefore at the Safari Gate Hotel at 8 am, ready with all of our materials. By 8.30 there is still nobody in sight. We are concerned that all our preparations, including my visit to Burundi, have been for nothing.
Our representative has spent a year on site establishing contacts and gaining the confidence of political parties. Would the army step in and declare it an illegal gathering? The ruling party is not keen on such training: after all, they have the power, so why would they participate in an activity that could benefit opposition parties?
At 9 am the first participants start to trickle in. First, some representatives of small parties. The Dutch Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) is as inclusive as possible: all of those we could reach (half of the current 44 official parties) are invited. Then follow even larger parties, of which some bring party leaders, a parliamentarian or former parliamentarians. And then: even the ruling party arrives, with three participants! We can begin.
About the training
At the request of NIMD I have come to the capital Bujumbura to provide training on the compilation of candidate lists for the upcoming elections. In Burundi this year five elections will take place – presidential, parliamentary, senatorial, local council and ‘collines’ (a kind of neighbourhood council) – so this is a skill that all parties need. And since we are dealing with a very young democracy, there is little experience available.
Based on a document from an experienced Labour Party (PvdA) member plus my own experiences with D66, I explain the different options for compiling a list, from centralized decisions by the party administration, to more democratic means involving all members. There are of course practical limits, which I also address. As background I explain briefly the history of D66, with all its ups and downs, successes and times when we still failed to achieve change, on democratic reform issues such as an elected mayor and the referendum proposal.
Fabien, the Burundian facilitator with whom I give the training, makes a first translation, situating my presentation within the Burundian context. He points out that the participants will need political tenacity: D66 has been losing elections for the past ten years but now it is re-emerging and although some goals over 40 years have still not been achieved, we continue to persevere. Important messages for a country where multiparty democracy is only five years old.
The Burundian electoral system
Then the participants have an opportunity to speak. Some believe that it is impossible to achieve internal elections in Burundi, but others speak directly to that, claiming that they have already begun! One party member speaks openly about the problems that sometimes occur in the drawing up of candidate lists. In a country where the postal system is barely functioning post and most of the population do not have email, the process runs mostly through internal communication party lines.
Some party barons have used this to their advantage. One local party leader received a letter from the national party board announcing that internal elections were to be held for the municipal list. He then informed his constituency: "the party has decided that I am party leader, and for the other positions we will organize elections." But these are beginner’s problems which can be solved, he says with a big smile.
There is much debate about the system of "liste bloqueé" which resulted from the peace agreement in Arusha. There it was agreed (under international pressure) that of the first three people on a candidate list, one must be from a different ethnicity to the other two (that is, Hutu or Tutsi). In addition, of the first four people on the list, there must be one woman.
To maintain this system, voters should not be voting for one person, but for one voting list. Some participants complained about this, because they believe that this weakens the tie between voters and representatives.Although they are basically right about that, I indicated that in the Netherlands we have a list system where voters can vote for a candidate, but where the link between voter and representative is also weak.
Perspectives on the training
At the end of the two days we asked the participants what they thought of the training. One of the participants said: "I did not know exactly what to expect. I have often had similar trainings from international institutions, usually monopolized by the speaker. But this was different: everybody stayed until the end, and no one fell asleep!" The others nodded approvingly. With a temperature of 38 degrees outside, and only the wind as air conditioning, it sounded like a really big compliment.
In preparation for the upcoming elections voter registration is now in progress. There are still some problems with fake IDs, voters who are too young to be registered, and tensions between youth organizations. Sometimes stones are thrown, and the police have not always been non-partisan.
And yes, there are rumors that votes can be bought. Burundi is a poor country, there is much for sale. In the latest survey of Transparency International, Burundi dropped to 168th place, out of 180 countries. But for a country where a 16-year civil war, with an estimated 300,000 deaths, ended less than a year ago, this is small beer. The press is free and focuses on misconduct enthusiastically. That gives hope.
This training should be seen in the same way. Of course knowledge was transferred about ways you can create candidate lists. But another event occurred, of an entirely different order. Present were representatives of parties that, until recently, literally fought each other as rebel movements. As the facilitator from Burundi said, the training has not only helped the parties to democratize internally, but also to promote tolerance between the parties.
On the field behind our hotel at the end of the afternoon many soldiers armed with machine guns suddenly appeared. Inquiries revealed that they were only there to guard the President, who was playing a football game. That is a peaceful contest. As long as that is the spirit, Burundi will have a good opportunity to continue on the path of democratization.