Observations from Ouagadougou: The Days before the Election

[This guest post is part of a series on Burkina Faso’s 2015 Elections. My colleague Daniel Eizenga, a Research Associate with the Sahel Research Group and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Florida, has been based in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou since August 2015 conducting dissertation research. He has generously offered to share his observations from the ground as the elections take place. Readers and journalists may contact Dan at: deizenga at ufl dot edu.  – Alex]

Date: Thursday, November 26, 2015 at 4:33 PM UTC

With only a few days left before presidential and legislative elections take place Sunday, 29 November, political campaigns in Burkina Faso are in full swing. So, I thought I’d offer some observations on a few of the big issues confronting political parties, candidates, and voters ahead of Election Day.

There are fourteen candidates making a run for the presidential palace, but most analysts and Burkinabè agree that the two front runners for the presidential election are the Union pour le Progrès et le Changement’s (UPC) Zéphirin Diabré and the Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès’s (MPP) Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Both candidates have been considered the most likely to win since the current transitional government was established in November 2014. Since the official campaign began over two weeks ago, both presidential candidates have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the former ruling party, the Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (CDP). Yet in reality, neither party offers much of a change.

The MPP’s strategy relies primarily on touting the fact that the party formed following the massive resignation of former CDP members who stood up to former president Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to remain in power. The subsequent creation of the MPP and its outspoken opposition to another term for Compaoré, helped to insure that it was not excluded from the upcoming elections like other former CDP-supporters and party members. It’s also helped the MPP, a party composed almost entirely of former CDP members, distance themselves from association with the former regime, despite the active role its leaders played in Compaoré’s government for decades.

The three leaders of the MPP—Kaboré, Salif Diallo and Simon Compaoré— are all well-known politicians who worked very closely with the Compaoré regime in which each held at different times leadership positions. In fact in 2010, Kaboré, as the president of the CDP, was one of the first public figures to openly call for Compaoré to modify the constitution and run for another term. And, while in general, it is unpopular to be associated with the former ruling party, it is precisely the MPP’s direct connection to the CDP which is responsible for its potential electoral strength.

After twenty-seven years as the ruling party, the CDP developed a massive network of both human and financial resources. Kaboré, Diallo, and Simon Compaoré, long-time party barons of the CDP, brought much of that resource base with them when they led the resignation movement in January 2014.

In addition to their resource base, the MPP’s leadership also profits from a more intangible political good: their reputation. The leaders of the MPP often publically reference their experience managing the administration of the state and government when comparing themselves to their political opponents. And it’s true that they are amongst the few candidates who can claim to have experience governing the country, but behind these multi-layered references is also a warning to their political foes: join us and reap the rewards, cross us and face the consequences.

When the leaders of the MPP were leaders of the CDP, they were well known for their patronage and in contrast, their retribution. As one Burkinabè businesswoman told me, “The people are scared of the MPP…that’s why no one talks about how close they were with Compaoré. [Kaboré and Diallo] only care about getting their political revenge and they will humiliate anyone in their way.”

It seems that in a slightly ironic twist, the past semi-authoritarian practices of the CDP remain so pervasive in Burkinabè political memory that the MPP leaders can now denounce the former ruling party and simultaneously benefit from the role they played in both its rise to power and its fall from grace.

Meanwhile, the UPC and Diabré continue to trumpet their role as the leader of the political opposition during the last two years of Compaoré’s rule. The party often cites Diabré’s former position as the Chef de File de l’Opposition and his role in organizing and leading demonstrations and protests against Compaoré’s bid to modify the constitution. Following legislative elections in 2012, the UPC won more seats in the National Assembly than any other single opposition party had ever won against the CDP. Yet, the UPC remains a fairly new political party without a long track-record in Burkinabè politics.

Diabré is well known, but prior to 2010 he held the position of Economic Advisor to then president Compaoré. Following his advisory position he accepted an international post with the UNDP and later the French Uranium company AREVA. Many suspect that Diabré’s success internationally can be credited to Compaoré’s personal connections.

Diabré and the UPC were ardent critics of the CDP and Compaoré over the last four years and they helped lead the opposition movement against Compaoré’s attempt to modify the constitution. Nevertheless, they continue to face challenges from other opposition figures because of Diabré’s past connections to the CDP regime.

Perhaps more damaging than his past connections to Compaoré and the CDP, however, are the recent accusations that the CDP joined Coalition Zéph 2015—a coalition of parties and organizations supporting Diabré’s presidential candidacy. The UPC has denounced these rumors on several occasions and Diabré himself disavowed any formal agreement with the CDP. Still, the damage might already be done.

The politics of the situation are such that, however unlikely it might be that the CDP would support the UPC, it’s even more unlikely that the former ruling party would support the MPP. Given that the leaders of the MPP led the massive sortie from the CDP and then actively worked against the former ruling party, most acknowledge that there is no possibility of the political parties cooperating together. As one political activist pointed out to me: “the CDP will never accept an [MPP] victory. [The CDP and its allies] will support anyone other than the MPP for president.”

In light of that common assumption, rumors of a UPC-CDP alliance have gained significant traction during the campaign. Even if no formal agreement is made between the UPC and CDP, it stands to reason that the UPC will receive the CDP’s support, simply because the UPC presents the most viable threat to the MPP. Prior to the fall of the Compaoré regime, it would have been incredibly difficult to imagine that one of the UPC’s supporters would end up being the party it was then in opposition against, but so goes the Burkinabè political circus.

Following the massive rejection of the failed coup in September, one might think the parties and candidates with no past connections to the CDP might have the best chance at winning this coming Sunday, but they’d be mistaken. The probability of a candidate who never collaborated with or profited from the former regime emerging victorious seems slim at best. Partially because the political atmosphere in Burkina Faso remains very divisive and partially because the presidential candidates with no past connections have failed to establish a cohesive coalition of electoral support behind a single candidate.

Some high-profile members of civil society—who protested the authoritarian nature of the Compaoré regime as far back as the late 1990s—have gone so far as to suggest that it may be better not to vote at all. Chrysogone Zougmoré, first vice-president of Coalition nationale de lutte Contre la Vie Chère and leader of the prominent human rights association, Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples, went so far as to state that voting was not compulsory and that those Burkinabè, like himself, who did not feel adequately represented by any of the candidates’ campaigns, would not vote. Other civil society organizations are calling on their supporters to boycott the elections altogether.

Oddly enough, those, like Zougmoré, who will not vote because they feel none of the campaigns offer a viable change from the past regime, might be joined by others who are not voting for an entirely different reason: there is no CDP candidate. Today a die-hard CDP supporter informed me that she will be voting for the CDP in the legislative elections, but plans to cast a blank ballot for the presidential poll.

I regularly meet those who do not support the exclusion of the CDP from the electoral process. For some, they oppose the exclusion because they view it is as anti-democratic in principle, but for many others they oppose it because it bars their ideal candidate from taking part in elections. Thus, in one final twist, it seems those most opposed to the former regime may end up joining those most in support of former ruling party by opting out of the presidential election.

It’s difficult to guess what results these historic elections will produce, but one thing is certain: Burkinabè politics are living up to their reputation for the improbable and unexpected.

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