I went to a “Soirée d’Amitié” organized by the American Embassy last night at the Ministry of Cooperation offices downtown. The audience was composed of about a hundred former US Government grantees, either Fulbrighters, International Visitors, Young African Leaders grantees, or alums of other training programs. The Public Diplomacy people, Brenda, Todd, Yolande, Leila, try to keep in touch with these folks as they are both influential – there were mayors, high-ranking civil servants, formerly (and maybe again) influential people from the old regime, important business people, journalists – and well-disposed to the United States.
The featured speaker was Abdoul Karim Sango, a lawyer, university professor of law and political science (at the University of Bobo-Dioulasso), and the opposition member of the Electoral Commission responsible for implementing the upcoming elections. So his talk was mighty topical.
The elections are going to take place the 29th. This is actually two weeks after the formal expiration of the mandate of the Transitional Government, which was instituted November 18th, 2014 with a mandate of one year. Nobody is much counting the dates, though one questioner did make the point and it was laughed off. Truthfully, any one of these transitional systems that gets done anywhere near on schedule should be considered a remarkable example of the breed. Way too often, the transitional regime ends up being the permanent regime.
Sango talked about how the election is going to be managed for transparency. Parties have funding to send representatives to each polling place. In principle, 17,000 of them – several people asked if all 14 parties were going to be represented at all polling places and I got the impression from a very wordy response that the answer is no, only two or maybe three will. But there will be election monitors from the parties. They are using a single ballot, for ballot secrecy, and they have put a lot of funding into rapid counting so election results will be available within 24 hours, or so they say. They will have international observers, not 17,000 of them, of course, but at least some polling places and the counting centers.
There was a lot of discussion of the role of local traditional leaders in influencing their people to vote this way or that way. Sango acknowledged that this was one of the realities of Burkinabè politics. Finally, part of the job of the media and civil society is to develop the spirit of independence in individual voters to allow them to make choices based on their own interests rather than the interests of others. We have this problem in the US as well, God knows, as millions of people vote the interests of wealthy corporate donors rather than their own real interests, led astray by advertising, Faux News, etcetera. So we can’t get up on our high horse too much. I managed to refrain from saying this to any of the earnest journalists and politicians at the gathering. Political leaders also, from a practical point of view, need to make more of an effort to bring in the traditional leaders and build coalitions. My friend Siaka would approve – he’s a big fan of the traditional leadership since his brother is the King of Bobo-Diolassou.
One of the weaknesses that I perceived in the system was that the turnout is pretty much guaranteed to be low, given that only about 5,000,000 people out of the 17,000,000 citizens of the country are registered to vote. The voting lists have been carefully purged of duplicate registrations to avoid voter fraud, which is fine. And people have to prove their identity before registering, which is also fine. But just like in the US where we have gone so far in the direction of preventing fraudulent registrations that we also prevent many more legitimate registrations, I get the feeling that they have done this here. About half the Burkinabè population is under 18 and thus not eligible to vote, but there are at least 3.5 million people out there who should be able to vote and who aren’t on the list.
And I also get the impression that the people who are disenfranchised by this process – just like in the US – skew more rural and poorer than average. The province with the smallest number of voters, a very rural area, had no more than 25,000, while the capital province had over a million all by itself. Poor country people are also, not coincidentally, the people most likely to vote for the CDP, the former ruling party, at least in the old days. The Compaoré regime had a good track record of soothing and subsidizing those rural traditional leaders. We’ll see who the more rural places go for when the elections come around.
The bigger problem is, will those rural people feel disenfranchised by the process? Will they accept the results of an election they weren’t able to participate in? The legitimacy of the government is truly at stake in this at least as much as in the business of counting ballots and reporting results. I didn’t really hear an answer and I suppose we won’t get one until after the 29th of next month. Stay tuned!