Burkina Faso: Wrestling with the Implications of Constrained Elections

Burkina Faso is set to hold the first round of presidential elections on November 22, coupled with legislative elections; incumbent President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election.

On August 25, the National Assembly passed a law modifying the electoral law of 2001. According to the linked article, out of 127 deputies in the legislature, 120 were present, and 107 voted for the law while 9 voted against (presumably, 4 abstained).

The most controversial part of the law is that it allows for, essentially, a partial election if/when “force majeure or exceptional circumstances” prevent polling places from opening in certain places. Jared Thompson spells out the situation in an excellent thread:

As Jared makes clear, one huge concern is not just about the elections’ representativeness in the abstract, but also specifically about whether these provisions will increase the chances of an incumbent victory for Kaboré and his party, the People’s Movement for Progress (Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès, MPP):

The Economist (paywalled) has put the stakes in stark terms, in light of the August 18 coup in neighboring Mali:

What with widespread accusations of atrocities by the security forces, Burkina Faso’s government could soon face a crisis of legitimacy much like the one that is tearing Mali apart. There, too, jihadists have overrun swathes of the countryside. Dodgy parliamentary elections with a paltry turnout earlier this year were followed by massive anti-government protests and then a coup. ECOWAS, the regional bloc, has told the soldiers running Mali to hand back power to a civilian administration and hold elections within a year. But the men in uniform want to stay in power for three years. When democracy falls, it is hard to restore. Burkina beware.

I have some similar concerns:

A few other observations:

  • To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one could say that Burkina Faso’s new law merely codifies what would have been the reality anyway. Ultimately it is insecurity and displacement, rather than this law, that will prevent people from voting and getting their votes counted. In Mali’s presidential elections in 2018, no “force majeure” clauses were invoked that I can remember – yet hundreds of polling places were closed due to violence and intimidation, and both Malian authorities and foreign powers simply accepted the results and moved on. One could argue that it’s better to be above board about the situation and keep things legal, rather than act like things are fine until election day and then have everyone throw up their hands in mock helplessness. Or one could argue that from a realpolitik perspective, the mistake in Burkina Faso is actually calling attention to the ugly realities now instead of papering over them come November.
  • Stepping out of the devil’s advocate role, honestly, these issues leave me really torn. The questions here cut to the bone: Does the mass violence in the Sahel reduce democracy to a kind of theater? Is the expectation (national and international) that “the (democratic) show must go on” unsustainable? Obviously it’s not up to me to decide whether and how Sahelien democracies function, but elections as a mechanism for providing change or continuity are under tremendous stress now. That doesn’t mean that Burkina Faso should abandon elections, or make Kaboré president for life, or repeal this law and just throw the dice in November to see who can vote safely and who can’t. But it’s hard to see how these elections will do anything other than dent Kaboré’s legitimacy at home and abroad. I guess, if I had to make a recommendation, I would say delay the elections until security conditions permit universal enfranchisement* and then subtract the length of the delay from Kaboré’s term if he wins, and allow the winner a full term if it’s someone else. But that kind of arrangement would require substantial legal/constitutional changes as well, obviously.

*And obviously that’s very problematic too, since the trend lines are going in the exact wrong direction on both violence and displacement:

I wrote about the displacement issue here, as well.

In short, nothing but bad options here. I don’t want to see flawed, unrepresentative elections that set the country up for a political crisis; but it’s also hard to imagine alternatives that wouldn’t involve an awkward, open-ended, and equally undemocratic holding period, waiting years for security conditions to permit an actually representative vote.

1 thought on “Burkina Faso: Wrestling with the Implications of Constrained Elections

  1. Pingback: Burkina Faso’s Presidential Elections: Key Candidates | Sahel Blog

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