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?
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.