Opposition supporters, one holding up a sign that reads in French, “No to the confiscation of our victory. Live the people”, as they protest at the Place de la Nation in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, on Nov. 2, 2014, calling for the departure of the military. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post by political scientist Molly Ariotti of Pennsylvania State University.

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Mass protests in the West African country of Burkina Faso have recently led to the resignation of the nation’s longtime president, Blaise Compaoré. Blaise, as he is known by the Burkinabè (the citizens of Burkina Faso), had ruled for 27 years since coming to power via a coup in 1987. The day before Compaoré’s resignation, the military had dissolved the National Assembly after the legislature was set on fire by protesters. Within hours of his resignation, the military suspended the constitution and staged what, for all intents and purposes, appears to be a coup.

The immediate trigger for the mass protests was a proposed referendum that would allow Compaoré to run for a third term in the 2015 presidential elections. At present, Article 37 of Burkina Faso’s constitution limits presidents to two terms in office, a change that was made in 2000. Controversially, the new term limits were not not applied retroactively, allowing Compaoré to compete in and win presidential elections in 2005 and 2010, though he had already served two terms in office.

As soon as he was nominated to run for a new second term, Compaoré began to publicly call for an end to term limits. In May 2013, Compaoré announced plans for the creation of a Senate, a third of whose members would be appointed by the president — widely viewed as a maneuver to make it easier for Compaoré to modify the constitution. This announcement was met with large protests, though the stability of the government was never in question.

This time things were clearly different; why have the recent protests succeeded in removing Compaoré when previous ones did not?

Pro-CDP political graffiti in Bobo-Dioulasso, July 2014. Source: Author photo
Pro-CDP political graffiti in Bobo-Dioulasso, July 2014. (Author photo)

While Burkina Faso has held multi-party elections since 1991, it is not considered democratic. Compaoré’s party, Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (CDP), has dominated these elections, winning 68 percent of the vote on average in legislative elections; Compaoré has himself won 87 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Political scientists refer to regimes like this as hegemonic party dictatorships. In such regimes, where the dictator’s party dominates a fragmented or weak opposition, political instability has often been attributed to poor economic performance and defections from the ruling party.

Some reports have pointed to poverty as an important factor in the recent unrest. While it is true that Burkina Faso is a poor country (its GDP per capita of $684 U.S. dollars in 2013 ranked it 129 out of 192 countries), there is little evidence that the economic situation has been deteriorating. The economic growth rate in 2013 (last data available) was 6.5 percent, which was above the average over the last 10 years (6.05 percent). So if the economic story doesn’t apply, could it be elite defections?

There is strong evidence that political parties help stabilize dictatorships – they can be used to co-opt opposition groups and reward political elites. The danger to hegemonic party dictatorships comes when splits and defections emerge in the dominant party. In January, three major political actors left Compaoré’s party. The first is Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a former president of the National Assembly and a longtime ally of Compaoré. The second is Simon Compaoré, the former mayor of Ouagadougou, the capital city. The third is a former cabinet minister, Salif Diallo.

These defections are significant because, rather than leaving the ruling party and each forming their own, they teamed up to form the Mouvement du peuple pour le progrès (MPP). The MPP received almost instantaneous support from the public, as well as from other opposition parties. Although they are not an official opposition party with seats in the legislature, it is clear from media reports in Burkina Faso itself that the MPP was seen as the CDP’s main opposition.

The recent government takeover by the military has complicated these developments. There have been conflicting statements in recent days about who is actually running the country. Right now, it looks like Lieutenant-Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida (an officer of the presidential guard) will be taking over leadership, but not without objections from domestic opposition groups and international organizations such as the United Nations and the African Union. The head of the parliamentary political opposition, Zéphirin Diabré, denounced all those who have declared themselves “Presidents of the transition.”

It is worth noting the role of the Burkinabè people in this transition. While many have only ever known Compaoré as president, there is evidence that an alternation in the presidency is widely valued by the public. Although it not clear if the current instability will degenerate, some recent research suggests grounds for guarded optimism. Marinov and Goemans demonstrate that the majority of coups since 1991 have been followed in relatively short order by competitive elections and the establishment of democracy (especially in those countries that are dependent on Western aid, as is the case with Burkina Faso). After their courageous protests in the streets, we can only hope the transitional period will end with the free and fair elections that Burkinabès have demanded.