May 28, 2015 / 2:44 PM / 2 years ago

EU, Burundi's Catholic Church pull out from observing elections

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - The European Union and Burundi’s influential Roman Catholic Church on Thursday pulled out from observing elections in the African country, saying that next month’s vote cannot be fair because of daily unrest and a crackdown on media.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini arrives to the Eastern Partnership Summit session in Riga, Latvia, May 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

More than a month of demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term in office has sparked the biggest political crisis since an ethnically-charged civil war ended in Burundi in 2005.

The EU said it had suspended its observer mission as the electoral process was “seriously marred by restrictions on independent media, excessive use of force against demonstrators (and) a climate of intimidation for opposition parties and civil society”.

The Catholic Church, representing more than two-thirds of the population in the central African nation, criticized the closure of private radio stations and said it would “no longer be able to support the electoral process”.

The government said both the EU and the church had erred in withdrawing ahead of the elections. “They should stay and wait for the process to begin and report anything that comes from them,” said Gervais Abayeho, the president’s spokesman.

He said parliamentary and local council elections would go ahead on June 5. A presidential vote is scheduled for June 26.

A coup attempt by elements of the army failed in mid-May but sometimes violent protests have continued amid opposition accusations that Nkurunziza is violating the constitution by seeking a third term, something his supporters deny.

Rights groups say at least 20 people have been killed in the capital Bujumbura, where the police have at times shot at protesters who were barricading roads and hurling rocks.

In a radio statement, Bishop Gervais Banshimiyubusa said: “If this situation continues, the elections which we expected -- peaceful for all, transparent, inclusive -- are not possible.”

The church also called for the reopening of shuttered private radio stations and said state radio only heaps praise upon the ruling party.

“It’s hardly conceivable that we would be able to conduct fair and transparent elections for all,” Banshimiyubusa said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said there was a “lack of confidence in the election authorities” but added that the European suspension could be lifted if conditions improved.

Abayeho said the EU announcement was surprising but the government remained open to having foreign monitors and that other “able” Burundians would replace priests as observers at polling stations.

The opposition has called for the elections to be postponed.

Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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