The people of Burkina Faso began voting in a general election Sunday in the shadow of a growing jihadist insurgency, and with opposition candidates warning of a “massive fraud” at the polls.
President Roch Marc Christian Kabore is expected to win re-election, his supporters talking up his chances of an outright victory in the first round of voting.
But no votes in the presidential and parliamentary polls will be cast in one-fifth of the country, where large swathes remain outside the state’s control and jihadist attacks strike almost daily.
The violence has forced one million people five percent of the 20 million population from their homes in the last two years and at least 1,200 have been killed since 2015.
The security crisis has dominated the campaign and an undisclosed number of troops have been deployed for polling day in the landlocked West African country, one of the world’s poorest.
Most of the 12 opposition candidates running against Kabore have criticised the incumbent’s failure to stem the bloodshed.
However political scientist Drissa Traore said Kabore remains “the big favourite against an opposition which has not managed to unite behind a single candidate”.
The president’s two main challengers are 2015’s runner-up, veteran opposition leader Zephirin Diabre, and Eddie Komboigo, standing for the party of former president Blaise Compaore.
Compaore, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2014 after 27 years in power, is now in exile but some voters are nostalgic for his regime.
Diabre told reporters on Saturday that “there is a huge operation orchestrated by those in power to carry out a massive fraud” so as to give Kabore a first-round victory.
“We will not accept results marred by irregularity,” added Diabre, surrounded at a press conference by five of the other 11 opposition candidates, including Komboigo.
The head of the president’s party, Simon Compaore, rejected Diabre’s “allegations”. Kabore did not need “any kind of fraud to the win the elections”, he said.
Kabore can avoid a run-off by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round — as he did in the last election in 2015.
The three leading candidates all wrapped up their campaigns on Friday, Komboigo telling a rally in the capital Ouagadougou that Compaore would “return with all honours”.
Kabore meanwhile filled Ouagadougou’s largest stadium with tens of thousands of supporters wearing his ruling party’s orange colours.
Campaigning and bloodshed
The campaigning ran alongside continued bloodshed and the fear of jihadist attacks on voting day was growing.
Fourteen soldiers were killed in an ambush in the north claimed by the Islamic State group earlier this month, one of the deadliest attacks on the military in the five-year insurgency.
Days later, the IS propaganda arm published a picture of two jihadists killing a man wearing an army uniform — but the military denied there had been a new attack.
Jihadist violence in the north as in neighbouring Sahel states Mali and Niger — has become intertwined with clashes between ethnic groups.
The Fulani community has in particular been targeted for recruitment by jihadists, and attacks regularly spark reprisal attacks, continuing the cycle of violence.
Humanitarian groups have condemned massacres of Fulani civilians by pro-government militias or the army.
Almost all of Kabore’s challengers have called for dialogue with the jihadists to be explored — a suggestion Kabore has emphatically rejected.
Around 6.5 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s election, but not in nearly 1,500 of the country’s 8,000 villages, nor in 22 of more than 300 communes, because of the security risks.