, RUGOMBO, Burundi, May 19 – Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza says he hopes his personal brand of "grassroots development" and religious fervour will win him re-election next month.
But the 45-year-old leader also promised to accept the results and step down graciously if he is voted out, with the small central African country kicking off an election marathon with local polls on Friday.
Mr Nkurunziza, a dedicated footballer and impressive stage performer, upped the pace of his political rallies over the past two weeks to galvanise the electorate for Friday\’s local council elections, seen as a test for political parties ahead of legislative and presidential polls.
"You can win today and lose tomorrow," he told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of a rally in Rugombo in the north of the country.
"This is what we\’ve been mindful of as we\’ve tried to teach the Burundian people to accept defeat as well as victory. The main thing is that we are a unified country and we all get the benefits of peace," he said.
Mr Nkurunziza has been accused by the opposition and rights groups of cracking down of civil liberties and muzzling dissent ahead of the elections, with the June 28 presidential vote followed by legislative polls in July.
"When I was chosen by my party to run in the election, I said: \’If God wants me to keep on running this country … if you think I\’m capable of running your country for another five years then everything will work out nicely\’," he said.
"But if you think I\’m not capable, I will accept the results of the polls like a good sport," said Mr Nkurunziza, a former Catholic turned born-again protestant whose political meetings often include prayers and religious songs.
Just before the interview, he was perched on the back of a truck equipped with loud speakers and stirring up a crowd of several thousand people with an energetic flurry of speeches, prayers and dancing.
The president\’s detractors accuse him of having turned state affairs into a perpetual re-election campaign in which he appears in countless provincial meetings on the pretext of inaugurating schools or health centres.
"The people who say that haven\’t yet taken on board the fact that development must start at the grassroots level and that if we don\’t look after that, nobody else will," Mr Nkurunziza said.
Burundi\’s 13 years of civil war from 1993 to 2006 left the country in need of major reconstruction and basic measures, such as free health care and primary education, he argued.
"We needed to get the whole population to take part in national reconstruction. The schools we\’ve built weren\’t for the president. Myself, I\’ve completed my education," he quipped.
He dismissed recent charges by rights groups that the youth wings of Burundi\’s political parties were organised like militia groups, insisting they had "helped rebuild the country".
Observers are concerned that electoral tensions could boil over, despite successes in the peace process launch after the war.
There have been several incidents between the ruling party\’s youth wing Imbonerakure and their counterparts from the National Liberation Front (FNL), notably in the Kinama district of the capital Bujumbura.
But Mr Nkurunziza was not concerned.
"Those are not skirmishes we\’re talking about. That is a story made up from scratch to create a false impression outside the country," he said.
"What we see from time to time are isolated cases; the police have kept such incidents in check and any young people who commit crimes are handed over to the courts, something that was not the case before," he insisted.
Mr Nkurunziza was elected in 2005.