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.

Looking Ahead to Burkina Faso’s 22 November Presidential and Legislative Elections

On 22 November (as announced in February), Burkina Faso will have simultaneous presidential and legislative elections. The presidential election will pit incumbent President Roch Kaboré against what I assume will be a host of challengers. The legislative elections will determine the occupants of the 127 seats in the country’s unicameral National Assembly. Municipal elections will follow in 2021.

Kaboré was elected in 2015 following the country’s 2014 revolution against longtime dictator Blaise Compaoré (in office 1987-2014). Kaboré and several other key figures, most notably Salif Diallo (d. 2017) and Simon Compaoré (no relation to Blaise that I know of), broke with Compaoré in 2012 and formed their own party, the Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès (People’s Movement for Progress, MPP) in 2014. Simon Compaoré is currently president of the MPP.

Kaboré may be in a bit of trouble in terms of re-election prospects. Objectively, the situation in Burkina Faso appears quite bad on several fronts: 2019 was the most violent year of the country’s ongoing insurgency, and in addition to the conflict zones in the north and east, violence may be poised to tick upwards in the southwest, site of a recent joint operation between the security forces of Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Largely due to the conflict, over 900,000 people have been displaced, most of them since the start of 2019. The security forces are accused of committing regular and serious human rights abuses against civilians, and the government is formally investigating the recent, alleged extrajudicial killings of 12 civilians in an eastern town called Tanwalbougou. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has had a substantial impact on the country, especially the economy – the World Bank (.pdf, p. 105) initially projected that Burkina Faso’s gross domestic product (GDP) would grow by 6% in 2020, but has since revised that forecast to just 2%.

In the national Présimètre poll, whose most recent iteration just came out, clear and sometimes dramatic majorities of respondents voice dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of key issues. On Slide 24, for example, 79.7% of respondents express dissatisfaction with the security situation in the country, and 83% are dissatisfied with the cost of living. Not everything is bad news for the government – on Slide 30, you can see that respondents’ confidence in key institutions is ticking upward after hitting a low in the June 2019 poll. But confidence is still under 40% for the government, the parliament, and the political parties. Furthermore, 73% of respondents plan to vote in the next election (Slide 32), but over 65% of respondents have not yet decided whom to vote for (Slide 34). 63% of respondents are dissatisfied with Kaboré’s performance (Slide 40), compared with 66% who were dissatisfied a year ago. Although respondents acknowledge that Kaboré inherited a tough situation, they also feel he “lacks the firmness that is required.” The average score that respondents gave his overall performance, on a 10-point scale, was 4.53 – his lowest score yet, in iterations of the Présimètre poll, since 2017.

Nevertheless, and perhaps quite expectedly, the MPP’s Simon Compaoré expresses confidence that Kaboré will win re-election easily. In a recent interview, Compaoré called it “a realistic ambition” to re-elect Kaboré “with a comfortable score of at least 60% of the votes.” That would mean avoiding the type of run-off that has proven electorally fatal for several West African incumbents over the years, for example Senegal’s Abdou Diouf in 2000 and Diouf’s successor Abdoulaye Wade, in turn, in 2012. Like many other West African countries, Burkina Faso has a two-round election system; if the incumbent fails to obtain 50% in the first round, it gives the (often fractured) opposition a chance to unite against him (it’s always been a him in Burkina Faso, so far) in the second round.

A few challengers have emerged so far:

  • Zéphirin Diabré, president of the Union for Progress and Change (l’Union pour le progrès et le changement, UPC), runner-up in the 2015 election;
  • Eddie Komboïgo, candidate of the former ruling party the Congress for Democracy and Progress (Congrès pour la démocratie et la progrès, CDP);
  • Gilbert Ouédraogo, president of the political party The Alliance for Democracy and Federation/African Democracy Rally (l’Alliance pour la démocratie et la fédération/Rassemblement démocratique africain, ADF/RDA);
  • Former Culture and Tourism Minister Tahirou Barry, who is supported by a coalition of parties called the Movement for Change and Rebirth (Mouvement pour le changement et la renaissance).

In the legislature, the MPP hopes to increase its share from the current 55 seats it has (out of 127). The UPC holds 33, the CDP 18, and no other party holds more than 5 seats.

The MPP is now looking ahead to its extraordinary congress on July 11, when it will formally invest Kaboré as the party’s candidate.

Various questions remain to be settled: Will the displaced be able to vote, and if so, how? Will credible voting be able to proceed in conflict zones? Will any candidacies be invalidated, and on what basis? Will a unifying figure emerge from within the opposition?

For now, if I had to predict, I would guess that Kaboré will be re-elected – despite the very low scores he and the government received in the Présimètre poll, I think that the advantages of incumbency, combined with the fragmentation of the opposition, will help him across the finish line. I also think he may benefit, electorally, from the displacement and the insecurity – and I say that not in a conspiratorial sense, not in the sense of accusing the government of fostering instability for political advantage, but rather in the sense that a smaller electorate can benefit the incumbent even if that incumbent is trying, in however flawed a manner, to address the conditions that shrink that electorate. But in any event, there is a lot of time, politically speaking, between now and November.