Published November 20, 2010
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – This West African nation holds presidential elections Sunday, but the winner seems a foregone conclusion.
President Blaise Compaore, a 59-year-old former army captain who first came to power through a bloody coup in 1987 and has held on to it ever since, faces an opposition so divided it cannot mount a unified campaign to fight him effectively at the polls.
Voters queued as early as 6 a.m. to vote. No major problems were reported Sunday morning, though some voters in the capital carrying their birth certificates were turned away from the polls for lack of proper voter identification.
One of the poorest countries in the world, landlocked Burkina Faso has suffered five coups since independence from France in 1960. Compaore is also credited with keeping the country relatively stable since taking power in one of them.
Long accused of helping fuel armed conflicts across West Africa, Compaore has in recent years recast himself as a peacemaker, playing a key role in helping to end conflicts in Ivory Coast, Guinea and Togo.
On Sunday, he faces six challengers — all from small opposition parties, though one is running as an independent. Among them is lawyer Stanislas Benewinde Sankara, who gained only about 5 percent of the last vote in 2005, compared to more than 80 percent for Compaore.
Halidou Ouedraogo, a lawyer and political analyst who helped push for key political reforms in 2002, said the problem with the country's opposition is that it is split into some 150 parties. Many of them, he said, "have the same ideology, but they have not been able to join together into a single opposition force."
Burkina Faso is near the bottom of the United Nation's Human Development Index, which measures general well-being, ranked 161 out of 169 nations. It has high rates of unemployment and illiteracy, and most people get by on subsistence agriculture; the country's main cash crop is cotton.
When a wave of multi-partyism swept the African continent in the early 1990s, Burkina Faso held elections and Compaore won two seven-year terms in 1991 and 1998.
A constitutional amendment in 2002 instituted two-term limits of five years each, but Compaore and his supporters argued the new laws could not be applied retroactively, and so he ran again in 2005 winning about 80 percent of the vote.
If he wins the Sunday's ballot, it should be his last term — his second since the constitution was changed. However, ruling party officials say they want to alter the constitution again so he can run as many times as he wants — something opposition leaders are vehemently against.
Just over 3 million of the country's 16 million people are registered to vote, and will cast ballots at around 12,600 polling stations nationwide. A little less than half the nation's inhabitants are under the age of 14.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.