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Burkina Faso elections mark turning point in country’s recent political turmoil

- December 6, 2015

On Nov. 29, Burkina Faso held presidential and legislative elections that signify a change of direction in the country’s recent tumultuous political environment.

In the past 18 months, Burkina Faso experienced both popular demonstrations leading to the ouster of the former president and an attempted coup against the interim government. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré won the presidential race and his party won a plurality, but not a majority, of the seats in parliament. Kaboré’s win is historic since it represents the first time since 1966 that a president ascended to office in the country without having launched a military coup. Kaboré is also the first non-incumbent candidate in Burkina Faso’s history to win a presidential election.

More than 3 million citizens – or just over 60 percent of registered voters – cast ballots in the Nov. 29 elections and according to preliminary results announced by the Electoral Commission (known by its French abbreviation CENI), Kaboré won the presidential race with 53.49 percent of the vote. Having secured a clear majority, Kaboré will not have to compete in a runoff election. His chief rival during the campaign, Zéphirin Diabré, received 29.65 percent. The remaining 12 presidential hopefuls split the remainder of the vote, with the next highest vote-getter earning just over 3 percent of the vote.

The elections mark the first time in decades that former president Blaise Compaoré did not appear on the ballot. Compaoré took power in 1987 following a military coup that resulted in the assassination of Burkina Faso’s iconic revolutionary president, Thomas Sankara.

After becoming head of state in 1987, Compaoré led a political transition establishing multiparty elections. He went on to win presidential elections in 1991, 1998, 2005 and 2010. His political party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), also won a majority at the National Assembly in every legislative election held after Compaoré took power.

Following his reelection in 2010, Compaoré and the CDP began to search for ways to modify electoral rules so that Compaoré would be eligible to run again in 2015. Those maneuvers sparked widespread demonstrations and protests during 2013 and 2014. Compaoré’s decision to seek another term in office also divided his party. In early January 2014, Kaboré – joined by more than 75 members of the CDP – resigned and created a new political party: the People’s Movement for Progress (known by its French abbreviation MPP).

Kaboré and the MPP united with the then-leader of the political opposition, Diabré, and his party, the Union for Progress and Change (UPC), to prevent the CDP and Compaoré from changing the constitution. Along with a massive civil society-led movement, efforts to prevent changes to presidential term limits culminated in a popular uprising in October 2014 during which the National Assembly was set ablaze and protesters overtook the national broadcaster. The protests forced Compaoré to resign.

Within this context, the military briefly took control of the country before ceding power to a civilian-led political transition tasked with organizing the most recent elections. The transition faced numerous obstacles over the past year. Notably, the former presidential guard – an elite unit of the military, loyal to Compaoré and his supporters – staged a coup d’état in September.

However, Burkinabè citizens once again took to the streets to support the transitional government. Within a week the coup was overturned when the regular army, recognizing that popular sentiment was overwhelmingly against the coup, demanded that the presidential guard surrender and disarm.

The failed coup delayed the elections originally scheduled for Oct. 11, but ultimately the transitional government succeeded in organizing what are now being recognized as Burkina Faso’s “freest and fairest elections ever.” International observers from the European Union, the West African bloc ECOWAS and the African Union have joined with thousands of local election observers from civil society in noting that the elections proceeded with only a few irregularities.

In a perhaps even more encouraging sign, nearly all of the presidential candidates offered their congratulations to the president-elect within 24 hours of the CENI’s preliminary results. During Compaoré’s rule, opposition parties frequently boycotted presidential elections and the results were often contested. In contrast, the most recent elections point to an increase in electoral transparency in the country that will undoubtedly bolster the confidence of both voters and candidates in the electoral process.

Still, the extent to which Kaboré and the MPP will break with the past remains to be seen. Some analysts assumed that in the wake of the popular insurrection, a second round would be needed to determine the outcome of the presidential election. Thus, the ability of Kaboré to win a majority in the first round came as a bit of a surprise.

Kaboré and MPP leaders all played an active role in the former regime up until their 2014 resignation from the CDP. Moreover, their political platform during the campaign hardly differed from the past policies of the CDP. Thus Diabré and the UPC campaigned on the notion that they represented a substantive change from the past. While this strategy did not pay off in the presidential race, it does seem to have had an impact on races for seats in the National Assembly.

The MPP failed to obtain a majority in the National Assembly, winning 55 of 127 seats. The UPC came in second with 33 seats, and the CDP demonstrated its continued electoral support throughout the country by winning 18 seats. The remaining 21 seats were divided between 11 other parties.

In the coming months, the MPP – largely seen as a continuation of the former regime – will be faced with a challenge the CDP never experienced. In parliament, the MPP will need to form a political coalition to pursue an effective legislative agenda. That may prove difficult. The UPC will almost certainly assume its role as the leader of the political opposition and will likely be joined by many of the smaller parties in the National Assembly. The CDP is unlikely to form an alliance with the MPP.

These elections hardened a strong divide between the MPP and CDP. During the political transition, the MPP supported reforming the electoral code so that individual politicians who supported Compaoré and the CDP’s bid to modify the constitution would be barred from running in the 2015 elections. The MPP’s recent electoral success also relied heavily on human and financial resources that they acquired during their tenure with the CDP. Consequently, even if their political platforms remain nearly identical, the MPP and CDP are vying over the same electoral base, solidifying the two parties as political adversaries.

As Kaboré and the MPP decide on their government, the inclusion and omission of politicians from other parties will help clarify what political alliances are being made. But one thing is clear: Burkinabè politics will be more competitive. The Blaise Compaoré era of a single dominant party has come to a close. Many of the political actors may remain the same, but the strategies they employ to govern will evolve.

Daniel Eizenga is a research associate with the Sahel Research Group and a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of Florida. He is currently based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, conducting research. You can follow him on Twitter at @eizengadan.