It’s a Brand New Day in Burkina Faso

It was a very big election in a country not used to holding them.

Roch Marc Christian Kabore, one of 14 candidates in Burkina Faso’s landmark vote, was announced the winner of the presidential election with 53.5% of the vote after the first round on Sunday November 29. Kabore was elected by millions of Burkinabe voters eager to get their country back on track after a tumultuous year, and Blaise Compaore’s nearly 30 years as head of state.

For Burkina Faso, this election marks a turning point in their post-colonial history. Since 1960, Burkina has practically only known coups as a means to hand over power between heads of state, setting back both the prospect of a healthy democracy and the country’s ability to flourish socio-economically.

Then, last year, a popular uprising reminiscent of the Arab Spring revolts swiftly forced Compaore to flee Burkina Faso. This portended cautious but positive change. Following a year-long transition, the successful November 29 elections are ushering a new era in Burkinabe history.

The anxiously awaited elections were supposed to take place in October, but when the old presidential guard attempted a coup in September, taking the transitional president and prime minister hostage, the process was nearly derailed. Burkinabes, however, empowered by the success of the popular movement which forced Compaore to step down in 2014, immediately took to the streets to protest the coup. Bolstering the popular response, the regular army also made it clear that it wouldn’t bow to the demands of the group, and the regional response – from the African Union and ECOWAS – was also unequivocal in its condemnation. With little to no oxygen, the coup was quickly stifled. Even though elections were pushed back by six weeks, this failed coup attempt signaled that Burkina Faso was ready to embrace an open democratic process.

The transitional phase, which began when Compaore stepped down and will end when Kobare is sworn in as president, also saw some profound changes to the Constitution and electoral laws. One of the key changes to the Constitution was to make access to water a right. When previously, Burkinabe people were left with no recourse when access to water in their community was problematic, the newly enshrined right provides new legal pathways for people to challenge their government, which, in turn will also need to prioritize water issues the budget.

Another fundamental change was to Article 37 of the Constitution, which stipulates that a head of state can be elected for a 5-year period only twice. This law was precisely the one that Compaore was attempting to modify prior to his demise; during the transitional phase, this constitutional provision was “locked up” and rendered unmodifiable. Among the other reforms adopted in the past year was the provision that any individuals associated with Compaore’s efforts to modify Article 37 were ineligible to run in this election – this rendered many hopefuls in Compaore’s party, the dominant Congress for Democracy and Progress party (CDP), unable to compete in the presidential run. The newly elected president, while he himself had been part of Compaore’s inner circle for years, left the CDP and founded the People’s Movement for Progress. Kabore was one of the most vociferous opponents to the constitutional modification sought by his former boss. Between his opposition to the Compaore and his depth of experience as statesman – he had been both prime minister and head of the National Assembly in CDP days – Kabore seems the natural choice for the people of Burkina Faso.

While Burkina Faso is basking in the glow of a successful transition and historic election, soon the honeymoon phase will end. The new president, who secured a strong mandate, will need to turn his attention to strengthening the Burkinabe economy – indeed, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking at 181 of 187 countries ranked in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. While the transition was a year of positive change, the instability led to decreased growth and skyrocketing unemployment – issues which will, hopefully, be at the forefront of Kabore’s agenda as he settles into his new role.