During his first term as president, Buyoya gained a reputation as a supporter of democracy and a moderate on ethnic issues. After taking power, Buyoya initially seemed little different from his predecessors, showing no inclination to relinquish Tutsi political dominance. However, after clashes in northern Burundi in mid-1988 left several thousand dead, including many Tutsi, Buyoya launched an aggressive program to ease ethnic tensions, naming a Hutu prime minister and placing Hutu in other important government posts. In 1992, Buyoya supported the adoption of a bill of rights and a new Constitution that legalized political party competition. He organized multiparty elections and gained international acclaim for peacefully handing over power after his June 1993 electoral loss.
Buyoya's second coup, in July 1996, received a much less enthusiastic response. While some people were relieved that a relative moderate had taken power, Buyoya's support was limited among both Hutu and Tutsi. After taking power Buyoya defended his coup as due to declining security conditions, and promised to again ease ethnic tensions and bring peace to Burundi. He named a Hutu prime minister and Hutu to other cabinet posts and promised that no punitive action would be taken against ousted president Ntibantunganya and his supporters.
Nevertheless, few Hutu have supported Buyoya's return to power. They blame him for the failed democratic transition because as president, he brought no Hutu into the military— the real center of power in Burundi. The Tutsi-dominated military, in which Buyoya remained influential, figured in much of the violence that began in 1995 and showed little regard for President Ntibantunganya's authority. While Buyoya has blamed Hutu rebels for the instability in Burundi that necessitated his coup, most Hutu blame the military itself for creating instability. Some Hutu leaders have claimed that Buyoya intentionally set up Burundi's democracy for failure, so that he could play the role of peacemaker and return to office with international support.
Many Tutsi are also mistrustful of Buyoya. Tutsi leaders accuse Buyoya of betraying the national interest by transferring power to the Hutu in 1993. Tutsi leaders such as Charles Mukasi, head of UPRONA, have urged Buyoya to take a hard line against Hutu guerillas. Buyoya suggested in a letter to former President Julius Nyrere of Tanzania that he might be willing to meet with CNDD rebels, which prompted a group known as Youth Solidarity for the Defence of Minority Rights (SOJEDEM) to accuse him of "high treason." Because SOJEDEM, UPRONA, and other groups pushed Tutsi civilians to take a more extreme position, Buyoya had to rely heavily on the military. But even within the military his support was limited since factions associated with Bagaza also supported a hard-line position. With the population of Burundi increasingly polarized, Buyoya's position was tenuous.