Why We Should Be Paying Attention to Elections in Burkina Faso

Since he took power during a coup in 1987, Blaise Compaore has been the president of Burkina Faso. An influential regional player and recognized as an ally by Western nations in the Sahel, Compaore has enjoyed nearly 30 years of uninterrupted rule. The scheduled presidential elections in 2015, however, are to be a test of Compaore’s respect for democracy and his country’s constitution. Indeed, in 2000, a constitutional amendment was enacted to limit heads of state to two terms of five years each. In 2010, Compaore clinched his second – and, technically, last – term with 81% of the vote.

Recently, however, Compaore and his ruling party, Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), have been setting the stage to modify the constitution to allow Compaore to run again for the presidency next year. This move has led to mass defections from the party, and the establishment earlier this year of a new opposition group, the Movement of People for Progress (MPP), with powerful ex-CDP figures at the helm. Demonstrations in support of and against Compaore and his bid to seek another term as president have been held with increasing frequency, contributing to further polarization in Burkinabe politics. Last week, CDP supporters gathered in Burkina’s second largest city to collectively call for a referendum on whether article 37 of the constitution – which sets the two-term limit for the head of state – should be modified. The message has been reinforced by party leaders, and a popular rally was held yesterday, which organizers estimate 50,000 people participated in.

Signaling the regional significance of the intensifying political crisis in Burkina Faso, Ivoirian president Alassane Ouattara has recently been brokering discussions between Compaore and his former party cadres, now leading the MPP. Compaore, over the years, has established a reputation as an influential power broker in the region, facilitating negotiations in neighboring countries, such as Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, or Guinea. His move to run for the presidency again is shaking Burkina Faso’s stable foundations in an unprecedented manner, meriting the intervention of another regional leader.

Notwithstanding his non-democratic beginnings and his relationships with leaders such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Lybia’s Qaddafi, Compaore has made himself – and his country – lynchpins in regional stability. He is routinely called upon to help mediate disputes, including in Mali where he helped broker a peace agreement with Touareg rebels and the the government in Bamako last year.

Burkina Faso, despite ranking 183rd of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index in 2013, has enjoyed relative peace and stability for many years under Compaore’s rule. In the next few months, leading up to the 2015 election, we will see whether Burkinabe democracy can withstand Compaore’s efforts to modify the constitution.