Burkina Faso set for an electoral uprising?

On Sunday, the people of Burkina Faso will head to the polls amid a climate of hope and uncertainty.

On Sunday, 29 November, around 5.5 million people are expected at the polls in Burkina Faso to elect the next president and the 127 members of Parliament. These elections, the first after the ousting of former president Blaise Compaoré, will see 14 presidential candidates and 6 944 Parliamentary candidates vie for top spots in the country’s leadership.

The current mind-set among most Burkinabes is a mixture of hope and anxiety. The electoral process, which was interrupted following the attempted coup d’état of 16 September 2015, was meant to end with elections initially scheduled for 11 October.

Although some voters seem to have lost faith in the power of the ballot as a means to express and realise their expectations, many remain hopeful that these elections could mark the beginning of long-awaited change. The polls will certainly be a test for the country’s democratic maturity.

Some voters in Burkina Faso seem to have lost faith in the power of the ballot

With four days to go before the polls, it is important to note that the electoral campaign, officially launched on 8 November, has so far taken place amid a generally peaceful atmosphere. President Michel Kafando, the current leader of the transitional government, has called for a calm atmosphere free of hate speech or incitement to violence. This was echoed by other personalities, such as the president of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) and the Attorney General of the Ouagadougou Court of Appeal, and their pleas for peace seem to have been heard. Except for a few cases of posters being vandalised and some verbal bluster, there have been no major incidents to disturb the campaign or cause tension.

This week, the various protagonists will most likely throw all their weight into some last-minute electioneering. This could result in localised tensions, especially between supporters of the two favourite candidates; Marc Christian Kaboré from the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) and Zéphirin Diabré from the Union for Progress and Change (UPC). Political actors must continue to act responsibly, especially by calling on supporters to exercise the utmost restraint and respect for opponents.

There is a real risk that the results of Sunday’s election will be contested

The risk of instability that has been present throughout the transition – fuelled by the various socio-political upheavals and interference in the political process from the former Régiment de sécurité présidentielle (RSP) – remains a cause for concern.

The dissolution of the RSP and the detention of some military officers would have helped to reduce the potential threat posed by the former majority party. Some observers have, however, not ruled out the possibility of former RSP elements destabilising the electoral process, especially those who have not yet taken up their new posts within the army.

The Burkinabe government has allocated close protection to all presidential candidates, and has mobilised at least 25 000 defence and security personnel to secure the electoral process. The state is also expected to reinforce border controls. However, while most actors and observers will find these measures reassuring, their effectiveness remains to be seen.

The main area of concern is the approach adopted by the political actors and their supporters towards the integrity and reliability of the electoral process; specifically their trust in the voting and counting operations. The upcoming elections will no doubt be the most competitive poll that Burkina Faso has organised since multi-partyism was restored in 1991. It is therefore crucial that the electoral process be transparent and credible.

To help ensure this, the CENI has put in place a set of mechanisms. Seen to be reliable, these mechanisms were explained to the political actors and citizens. They include, among other things, a biometric electoral register and a satellite system to collect and disseminate the results.

This does not, however, rule out the possibility of errors occurring. If that were to happen, this could delay the announcement of the results, which the CENI plans to publish the day after the election. Such a delay could spark confusion, suspicion and might eventually result in tensions.

Burkina Faso will continue to face many socio-economic and political challenges

Several monitoring mechanisms will also be deployed to enhance the credibility of the poll. The Economic Community of West African States, European Union and several civil society organisations will play an important role in this regard. For instance, a grouping of civil society organisations called Coordination des organisations de la société civile pour l’observation domestique des elections, or CODEL, manages a real-time monitoring system of voting and counting operations. CODEL plans to deploy more than 5 000 domestic observers.

These measures should help reduce the chance of the results being contested, which unfortunately remains a real risk. If this were to happen, the Burkinabe authorities should invite and encourage stakeholders to make use of existing legal mechanisms. Besides the concerns already mentioned, other unknowns include not only the level of participation, but also the outcomes of both the presidential and legislative elections.

Beyond the elections, the post-Compaoré, post-uprising and post-transition Burkina Faso will continue to face many socio-economic and political challenges. Civil society organisations will have their work cut out for them in urging the next set of leaders to live up to the nation’s expectations.

William Assanvo, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risks Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

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