OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Burkina Faso votes in its first free election in three decades this weekend, choosing a replacement for long-time leader Blaise Compaore, who was ousted a year ago in a military-backed popular uprising in the landlocked West African nation.
The polls were pushed back from Oct. 11 after an abortive coup in September by members of the now-disbanded elite presidential guard (RSP), but are expected to pass off peacefully.
“This is definitely the most open election since the country’s independence,” said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. “You actually don’t know who is going to win, even though there are front-runners.”
Compaore ruled the former French colony, a cotton and gold producer, for 27 years until his bid to change the constitution to maintain his grasp on power provoked protests that eventually forced his resignation.
Fourteen candidates have put themselves forward, but - in the absence of accurate opinion polls - analysts say only two have a real chance of winning: Roch Marc Kabore, once a prime minister under Compaore, and Zephirin Diabre, a businessman.
Kabore heads the Movement of People for Progress (MPP), made up of disaffected allies of the former president who left the party months before Compaore stood down. Diabre fronts the Union for Progress and Change (UPC), which was the formal opposition.
Kabore draws support from the business elite and, as a member of the largest ethnic group, traditional chiefs. Diabre has international ties from his years at the United Nations Development Programme and Areva, a French nuclear company.
Many people say they will vote for the candidate who has the best chance of promoting economic growth. The September coup cost the already small economy more than $50 million in lost revenue, trimming growth by 0.3 percentage points.
Corruption and justice are also issues for voters, prompting a resurgence in the popularity of charismatic former leader Thomas Sankara, a Marxist revolutionary dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara” who was assassinated in a 1987 coup led by Compaore.
For some young people, the front runners’ ties to Compaore have evoked disillusionment.
“Blaise ruled for 27 years,” said student Mariam Traore. “Roch was with him for 25 years. He’s the same thing.”
Campaign rallies have been packed, in many cases by voters born after Compaore came to power and with little illusion about the chances for real change.
Siaka Diarra, 30, who sells clothes, said he was worried about vote fraud and violence, even if an electoral observer said he thought the polls would pass without significant incident.
Some worry too about remnants of the elite presidential guard. Although it was dissolved and mostly disarmed after September’s coup, a dozen soldiers remain at large.
Alain Zagre, the minister of security, said the missing guards did not constitute a significant danger although up to 25,000 officers will secure major roads and polling stations.
Authorities are also on high alert after a jihadist attack a week ago on a hotel in Mali, with which Burkina Faso shares a long border. The land frontier will be closed from Friday night to Tuesday morning, Zagre said.
“We are surrounded by terrorist dangers at the borders,” Zagre said. “This situation requires us to take exceptional measures for effective security.”
Additional reporting and writing by Makini Brice in Dakar; Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Heavens