The Hutu-Tutsi struggle for power in Burundi moved from the battle field to the ballot box yesterday, with hundreds of people lining up at polling stations before dawn to cast votes in a historic constitutional referendum.
Some 3.1 million people in this nation with a population estimated at 6 million have registered to vote in the referendum, which will determine the fate of a constitution that reserves 60 percent of seats in government and parliament for Hutus and 40 percent for Tutsis -- the current distribution under an interim constitution.
Until that interim charter, the Tutsi minority had dominated politics since Burundi's independence from Belgium in 1962.
If voters reject the proposed final constitution, the interim constitution will remain in force until elections are held for parliament this month and for president next month -- and the new government will then draft a constitution that will be submitted for another referendum.
The referendum and elections are part of a peace process intended to end Burundi's 11-year war between the army, dominated by the Tutsis, and rebels from the Hutu majority.
Pledge not to disrupt
The last holdout Hutu rebel group pledged not to disrupt the referendum, saying it hopes the new constitution will clear the way for the election of a new government with which it could negotiate a political settlement.
Voters will cast ballots at 2,100 polling stations. Polls opened at 6am and were to close at 4pm. Initial results will be released today and final results are expected to be published Friday, said Father Aster Kana, spokesman of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
"I am here to cast my ballot and I will vote no because I don't know the contents of the constitution ... because officials did not make efforts to educate us on what is in the constitution," said Immaculate Sindayihebura, a Tutsi civil servant.
Eric Bigirumuhirwa, a Hutu soldier, said the most important thing for him was the significance of the vote, not the fact that he too didn't understand key details of the charter.
"This vote for me means we need get a constitution and a government of national unity that will work to end this war. And I will be able to rest after six years I have been fighting," Bigirumuhirwa said after casting his ballot, dressed in civilian clothing.
Authorities will enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew in one of Burundi's 17 provinces shortly after polls close to secure Bujumbura Rural Province as electoral workers count votes in the region where a holdout rebel group is still active, said Colonel Donatien Sindakira, minister for public security.
The curfew was to come into force at 6pm yesterday and ends at 6am today, Interior Minister Simon Nyandwi said.
Electoral officials said security officers in civilian clothing will protect polling stations. Officials at the UN mission in Burundi have said peacekeepers are on standby to help local security forces and will maintain a visible presence to assure Burundians that it is safe for them to vote.
The majority of 51 percent of votes cast is needed for the referendum to pass, electoral chief Paul Ngarambe said.