Burkina Faso counts votes after threat of violence disrupts polls

Hundreds of thousands of people unable to vote because polling stations remained shut for fear of attack; incumbent President Roch Kabore in the lead with just three districts declared.

Vote counting is under way in Burkina Faso after polls closed in presidential and legislative elections, where threats of violence prevented parts of the country from casting ballots.

Electoral officials said on Monday incumbent Burkina Faso President Roch Kabore, who is vying for another five years against 12 other candidates, was leading with just three voting districts declared.

Election workers began the counting after polls closed on Sunday by holding the ballots up for observers and marking the votes on a chalkboard beside the candidate’s name. Preliminary results are expected within the next two days.

While there were no reported incidents of major attacks, threats of violence prevented hundreds of thousands of people from casting ballots in hard-hit parts of the country, in the North, Sahel and East regions. Armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) operate across vast swaths of Burkina Faso, part of an escalating security situation in West Africa’s Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert.

Last year, the conflict killed some 2,000 people in Burkina Faso. More than one million Burkinabe people have been displaced by the fighting.

Newton Ahmed Barry, president for the National Independent Electoral Commission, said on local television that nearly 3,000 polling stations expected to open did not do so, preventing up to 350,000 people from voting.

In Tapoa province in the east, 224 polling stations out of 335 did not open, according to a report from CODEL, a local election monitoring group. CODEL said it was “concerned about the situation in areas weakened by insecurity”. Local officials in the Sahel and Centre North, the epicentres of the violence, told The Associated Press news agency people were angry about not being able to vote.

“I’m upset and people are complaining because they thought they’d be able to vote and couldn’t,” Saidou Wily, a government official in Barsalogho town in the Centre-North, said by phone on Sunday. At least 37 villages in the region expecting to vote, were unable to, he said.

Some open polling stations had to close early due to security concerns. In Markoye Commune in the Sahel’s Oudalan province, the polls closed three hours ahead of schedule, according to a post-election report from the West African Network of Peacebuilding, an organisation focused on human rights.

There were also some reports of fights between political activists in the West and Centre-North and attempts to “influence voting” by supporters of candidates and political parties, according to an internal report from a local human rights group seen by the AP. Halidou Ouedraogo, president of CODEL, said there were some areas in the east where no ballot paper was available, so approximately 30 people voted on fake ballots. But this was detected and rectified, he said.

Burkina Faso observers said that this election is a major test for the nation’s young democracy in the face of rising attacks and the violence and intimidation show how limited the authorities’ control and legitimacy really are.

The electoral commission was unable to hold voter registration in more than 17 percent of the country’s municipalities, meaning voting did not take place in those violence-hit areas either – a development that would be seen as a victory for the armed groups.

“On one side, [those unable to vote] will continue to feel alienated from the mainstream government,” Chukwuemeka Eze, executive director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, told Al Jazeera.

“And then on the other side, is the perception of the extremists that they have actually succeeded because if they (citizens) are not able to vote, it means they are winning the war because the state machinery is not well to allow the citizens to vote, which is what actually they (fighters) have been aiming at.”

A change in Burkina Faso’s electoral code this year means that election results will be valid even if people cannot vote in parts of the country.

Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati in the United States, said whoever “wins [the election] will confront the challenge not just of restoring security, but also showing Burkinabe that every citizen matters”.

Kabore is expected to win, but the opposition hopes to split the vote, depriving him of the 51 percent support needed for an outright victory in the first round. Then, it plans to form a coalition behind the strongest opposition candidate for the second round.

Opposition candidates accused the governing party of fraud, including bribing people. The parties also accused the National Independent Electoral Commission of making changes to the electoral map, said Zephirin Diabre, a leading candidate from the Progress and Change Party.

After voting in the capital, Ouagadougou, he told the media that he will congratulate whoever the winner is, but “won’t accept results that are stained with fraud and irregularities”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies