So yesterday was election day for municipal elections here. As I anticipated in my earlier post on this subject, the result was a good deal of sound and fury from the political class but relatively little interest by the public as a whole. Making the rounds of polling places this afternoon, I noted no lines or even much activity at all. Talking to my various friends, only one of them had voted, the irrepressible Djibi.
A common feature in elections around the world is the requirement that voters dip their finger in indelible ink to prevent multiple voting. Djibi said the ink they used in December actually washed off pretty easily, but this time after a couple of hand-washings you can still see the sign of a good citizen on his finger.
The media covered the elections with at least as much intensity as they did the general election of December. Burkina24 issued hourly bulletins. There was actually a lot of excitement. In three communities, the local ruling party committee (the MPP) managed to miss the deadline to turn in their list of candidates and so they were not on the ballot. They appealed to the constitutional court, who took the position that minor technical errors should not disenfranchise a large segment of the population, and ordered the MPP candidates restored to the ballot. The independent electoral commission responded that it was too late, the deadlines were there for a reason and they could not reprint the ballots with the missing candidates’ names. A standoff ensued, with a bit of arson and chest-bumping, though no bloodshed. In the end, election day morning dawned in these three towns with electoral commission representatives attempting to hold the election with the flawed ballots and MPP activists demonstrating energetically and somewhat destructively outside the polling places. The security forces were called in, and they doused the premises liberally with tear gas, whereupon both protesters and intending voters fled. The electoral commission then called off elections in those towns. Presumably, when they hold the delayed elections in a few weeks or months, the missing candidates will appear on the ballot so one can say that the protesters won. This is not in any way a clear-cut case of security forces intervening on behalf of the ruling party, though, despite some caustic comments from the head of the electoral commission.
In a few other communities, there were vigorous debates or attempts to interfere with other parties’ voters, but the cops were on the job there and voting appears to have proceeded pretty smoothly nation-wide. This contrasts sharply with the experience of elections in neighboring countries, which often feature massive street brawls and sometimes degenerate into civil war, as in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002 and again in 2010. Heavy-handed interventions by the security forces are quite common, and sometimes these degenerate into armed repression of opposition voters.
The independent electoral commission, by the way, is really independent. This is one of the democratic legacies of the Compaoré government. Compaoré is often accused of being a dictator, and in some ways he certainly was. He came to power originally at the head of a military coup d’état, overthrowing and killing a previous military strongman that he had originally supported. But he morphed over the years, under pressure from western aid donors, into a dictator who ruled like a Boss Tweed or a T.J. Pendergast. There were elections. There were opposition parties. Very few people got arrested or shot for defying the government. It’s just that Compaoré’s party, the CDP, was so well-organized that it could always get its supporters to the polls and so it routinely won control of national and local government. It used that control in part to funnel resources to its supporters, ensuring that it had sufficient support and resources (from kickbacks, er, excuse me, campaign contributions) to continue to dominate politics. For the public in general, the CDP provided the important public good of peace and stability, and a modicum of public services available to all. If they had been able to figure out a plausible transition strategy in 2014 they could have become like the PRI in Mexico, who ruled for 70 years with a shifting cast of bosses, keeping a lid on criminals, regional strongmen, and political dissent. As in Mexico after the fall of the PRI, dissent and criminality have come out of the closet here in Burkina, and there are people who are longing for the return of stability and peace even if the price is some corruption. Mexicans freely voted the PRI back into power in the last presidential election.
Organization is still the key in Burkinabè politics today. It’s just that the old organization is splintered between the new ruling party, the MPP, and the remnants of the CDP that still wield a good bit of power in rural areas. There is also another faction of CDP defectors, the FASA, newly created for these municipal elections by Djibril Bassolé, the CDP presidential candidate in 2015 who was rejected by the transitional government for having supported Compaoré’s attempt to bypass the constitutional term limits in 2014. It remains unclear at this writing how good the FASA’s organization will prove to be. The major opposition party, the UPC, has a good deal of support among urban middle-class folks, the kinds of people who participated in the October 2014 uprising that drove out Compaoré and the resistance to the September 2015 coup. It remains to be seen if that support will translate into actual votes. All the UPC supporters I know did not have purple pinky fingers last night. Organization is particularly the key when you are having an election with pretty big outcomes in terms of budgets and power over people’s lives, but most people don’t care and aren’t paying attention. Like yesterday. Or in off-year elections in the US, where Democrats routinely lose seats and governorships to the better-organized Republicans (Will Rogers: “I belong to no organized political party; I’m a Democrat”).
Fragmentary results in so far suggest that the best-organized parties, the MPP and the CDP, have won the lion’s share of seats. I only saw a couple of Ouagadougou results, that showed the MPP ahead of the UPC, so I don’t know if the political insiders’ feeling that the UPC candidate for mayor was likely to win here is going to be borne out in fact. Mayor of Ouagadougou is an important position. Ouaga is the biggest city in the country and the national capital, though Bobo-Dioulasso has a more dynamic economy. The current Minister of Internal Security (“supreme chief of the Kogl-wéogo” or so they say) Simon Compaoré came to national prominence as Mayor of Ouaga. If the UPC wins this race, it will be a major step for them in becoming legitimate contenders for national power.