Burundi's high-stakes referendum

From the face of things all looks well in Burundi. People are voting for or against proposed constitutional changes that will see among other things the presidential term limit increased from five to seven years.

What this also means is that it will be possible for President Pierre Nkurunzinza – who won a controversial third term in 2015 – to vie again for another two terms and rule till 2034.

Political leaders supporting or opposing the changes have had 10 days to campaign. Some five million Burundians have registered to vote and all they will be required to do now is tick ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on the ballot paper.

People are seeing their businesses closed in some provinces just because they attended rallies… It’s a challenge and it proves the regime is afraid that people will disapprove their proposal.

Agathon Rwasa, Opposition leader

But looking closer things are not as simple as they appear. Human rights and opposition groups have accused government forces and the ruling party youth wing of intimidating people to scare them into voting ‘Yes’.

Agathon Rwasa, one of the few opposition leaders who is still in the country, told Al Jazeera that the proposed changes reverses gains made after the signing of a peace deal in 2000 that ended a 12-year civil war in which at least 300,000 people were killed. That deal was specific on the presidential term limit: two terms – five years each.

Scared to speak

Rwasa however also said their ‘No’ campaigns have been rough.

“People are persecuted, they are arrested because they are for the ‘No’ side. People are seeing their businesses closed in some provinces just because they attended rallies. Others are being beaten. It’s a challenge and it proves the regime is afraid that people will disapprove their proposal.”

The ruling party held its final campaign in the capital, Bujumbura, on Monday. Speaker after another they talked of foreign interference and told supporters that the changes are meant to strengthen parts of the constitution imposed by outsiders.

“It will harmonise the laws of the country with the East African Community. It will strengthen local governance at the base. It will give more time for elected leaders to implement their policies” Nancy Mutoni, the party’s communication’s director, said.

But not many people we talked to in the city seemed to understand exactly what the amendments include. Even fewer were actually willing to speak to us for fear of saying the wrong thing. “We’ll get in trouble” was a phrase repeated several times.

But we met Ndabwe Kasalo and his friends at a coffee shop in one of the city’s suburbs. They all said they will vote because they fear that not casting the ballot will get them in trouble with the authorities. Kasalo is however, worried that the proposed changes may divide the country, lock out independent candidates from elections and keep president Pierre Nkurunzinza in power for another long while.

Attack on media

The government has also been tough on the media. A crackdown that started following election violence and an attempted coup three years ago has not let up. Independent media stations have been shut down and journalists are in exile.

Most recently the national regulator CNC banned broadcast operations for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of America, accusing them of failing to respect the country’s media laws and ethics.

Al Jazeera is one of few international broadcasters allowed to cover the referendum.

Most voters we talked to in Bujumbura are not hopeful that the referendum will be free and fair. They believe the ruling party which is campaigning for the referendum has the upper hand and the ‘Yes’ vote is likely to carry the day.

The party is also banking on its big support base in the country side.

Whatever the outcome – many Burundians are certainly praying that there will not be any trouble.