It's 'war' in Burkina Faso, but Tunisia finally gives the Arab Spring spirit a sweet victory

Africa just had three elections. Two - in Botswana and Tunisia - have been clean. One, in Mozambique, was disputed. That's a 66% passing grade.

THE Burkina Faso opposition has called for a blockade of parliament Thursday, when the legislature debates constitutional changes to allow long-serving President Blaise Compaore to extend his rule.

Several thousand protesters marched through Burkina Faso’s capital on Wednesday, the day after a massive rally against Compaore.

Banks, shops and markets reopened after street battles erupted during Tuesday’s rally by hundreds of thousands of people against what they see as a constitutional coup by supporters of Compaore.

The opposition has called for a blockade of parliament when the legislature examines a proposed amendment that would allow Compaore, now in the 27th year of his presidency, to run for re-election for another five years.

The Black Spring

“One thing is certain: we’ll march on the parliament on Thursday,” said Emile Pargui Pare, an official from the Movement of People for Progress (MPP), a young and influential opposition party.

“October 30 is Burkina Faso’s Black Spring, like the Arab Spring,” Pare told AFP, referring to uprisings in the Arab world that toppled several long-serving rulers.

As it happens, the Arab Spring, seen as a lost cause after the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt won elections and then alienated the protestors who had helped toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, thus falling prey to a military coup, got its first true vindication in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring revolts that shook the wider region in 2011.

The secular Nidaa Tounes party came top in the country’s landmark legislative polls beating Islamist rivals Ennahda, who did something one rarely runs into in Africa – just hours after polling stations closed Sunday, it acknowledged that it had been beaten into second place by Nidaa Tounes. The action won Ennhada praise.

The grace shown by Ennahda, however, is indicative of something bigger – that the election was free and fair.  It has been a good fortnight for clean elections, with polls in Botswana on the weekend that were won by the governing Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), also coming off without the opposition crying “thief”. 

Days earlier in Mozambique, though, the opposition rejected victory by the ruling Frelimo, alleging irregularities that included ballot-box stuffing, and the blocking of their agents from several polling stations.

A passing grade

In all, two clean elections out of three is 66%, a passing grade.

Ennahda, though dominant in Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution, avoided the ruinous path the Muslim Brotherhood took in Egypt. And faced with terrorism, it didn’t entrench the factionalism that has seen post-revolution Libya descending in a violent near-hell following the killing of the country’s decades-long autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. The election was, therefore, also a test of how much Ennahda would live up to the spirit of the Arab Spring, and “listen to the voice of the people”, as it were.

It would perhaps be foolhardy to take bets on how a Burkina Faso “Black Spring” will play out.

For now its prospects look daunting. A heavy police presence followed Wednesday’s march after police fired tear gas at demonstrators wielding iron bars and stones the previous day.

Five people were injured on Tuesday, according to Ablasse Ouedraogo, a former minister now in the opposition.

Government spokesman Alain Edouard Traore issued a statement hailing the “vitality” of Burkina Faso’s democracy despite what he termed anti-government “misbehaviour”.

Compaore’s bid to cling to power has angered the opposition and much of the public, including many young people in a country where 60% of the population is under 25.

Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and—with the poor former French colony stagnating at 183rd out of 186 countries on the UN Human Development Index—many have had enough.

The situation is being closely watched across Africa where at least four heads of state are preparing or considering similar changes to stay in power, from Burundi to Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Compaore was only 36 when he seized power in a 1987 coup in which his former friend and one of Africa’s most loved leaders, Thomas Sankara, was ousted and assassinated.

The 63-year-old has remained in power since then, re-elected president four times since 1991—to two seven-year and two five-year terms.

In 2005, constitutional limits were introduced and Compaore is coming to the end of his second five-year term.

The opposition fears the new rules would enable Compaore to seek re-election not just once, but three more times, paving the way for up to 15 more years in power.

The third largest party in parliament said at the weekend it would back the amendment, setting the ruling party on course to obtain the two-thirds majority it needs to make the change without resorting to a referendum as first promised.

Protesters have erected barricades and burned tyres in the capital since the proposal was announced on October 21.

Triumph of pragmatism

In Tunisia, meanwhile, because neither of the two top parties had been expected to win an outright majority, political horse-trading had already begun ahead of the announcement of final results.

Ennahda, called on its supporters to celebrate “democracy” and hundreds of them rallied outside its Tunis headquarters despite the defeat – again, not just an African, but a world rarity where the vanquished often walk away moping.

“We consider Tunisia has triumphed and that Ennahda has triumphed by leading the country to this stage,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi, national coordinator for the movement, whose campaign slogan was “consensus”.

Independent analyst Selim Kharrat, said this has made Ennahda look like “a very sleek, very democratic party, which congratulates its opponent, which hands over power”, also referring to the time in January when Ennahda gave way to a government of technocrats to defuse a political crisis.

The UPL (Free Patriotic Union), led by entrepreneur Slim Riahi, came third, winning 16 seats.

That was just one more than the leftist coalition Popular Front secured.

Tunisians hope the election, and the presidential vote on November 23, will provide much-coveted stability, nearly four years after the January 2011 revolution that toppled long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Nidaa Tounes, an eclectic coalition of left and centre-right figures, opponents and former bigwigs of the ousted Ben Ali regime, mounted a strong campaign against the Ennahda Islamists.

Ennahda, which won Tunisia’s first free elections three years ago after the toppling of Ben Ali, had previously been accused of working to Islamicise society away from its traditional secularism.

Tunisia’s economy has also been in the doldrums during its tenure, and two prominent figures were assassinated last year by suspected jihadists, triggering the political crisis that Ennahda resolved by handing over power.

Analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said Ennahda’s change of tack could be traced back to the Egyptian army’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the bloody repression that followed.

“What happened in Egypt shook them up”, and led to an easing of strains with Nidaa Tounes.

Analyst Kharrat said this showed Ennahda’s “extraordinary pragmatism and capacity to adapt” to political developments. Under Tunisia’s electoral system, a party that gains the largest number of votes but falls short of an outright majority is given a mandate to form a coalition government.

Foreign observers praised the “free” election and signs of a peaceful transition in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

However, poverty and unemployment, which were key factors that sparked the anti-Ben Ali revolt, remain unresolved.

Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran of Tunisian politics, vowed to form a coalition with other parties to take the country forward.

“We took the decision in advance that Nidaa Tounes would not govern alone, even if we won an absolute majority,” Essebsi told Al-Hiwar Al-Tounsi television.

“We will govern with those closest to us, with the democratic family, so to speak,” he said.

Essebsi has also said he will stand in the November 23 presidential election, and is considered to be a front-runner.

-Reporting by AFP

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