Burkina Faso’s leader Blaise Compaore appealed to voters to cast their ballot amid early signs of a weak turnout in a presidential poll where he is seen as the clear favourite.
Compaore, 59, has carved himself a niche as an important and sometimes controversial power-broker in the unstable West African region, with analysts in particular citing his role in pushing for a return to civilian rule in Guinea.
A Reuters witness who toured the capital Ouagadougou noted only a trickle of early voters and said a number of opposition parties had failed to place representatives at polling stations to monitor the vote, Reuters reports.
“Voters should turn out in large numbers for this election because it is an opportunity for us to take stock and also to plan for the future,” Compaore told reporters as he cast his vote in a booth in the capital Ouagadougou.
Compaore seized power in a 1987 coup. Despite allowing multi-party politics he has faced little or no real opposition in a gold-mining and cotton-producing country where income per head is half the average for sub-Saharan Africa.
Compaore last won election in 2005 with an overwhelming 80.3 percent. A weak turnout among the 3.3 million registered voters would nonetheless undermine the credibility of the poll result, which is due to be declared by November 25 at the latest.
A landlocked country of 15 million people, Burkina Faso has avoided the instability that has plagued its neighbours and has in recent years benefited from high gold and cotton prices.
But while Ouagadougou hosts a top African film festival and has established itself as a venue for international conferences, it is stuck at 161st place out of 169 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, a composite measure of life quality.
“It’s true, here, we haven’t got anything but at least we have peace and that is the most important thing,” said pensioner Alfred Ilboudo. “This isn’t perhaps the best regime but I am voting for peace — just look around us.”
Others said they would vote against Compaore, but had little faith in any of the six opposition candidates, none of whom has has had the financial means to match a campaign that has seen him hold rallies in even far-flung rural areas.
“It’s a foregone conclusion,” said teacher Omar Tapsoba. “I am voting just to ease my conscience because I don’t want to think that tomorrow this government will still be in power because I didn’t cast my vote.”
Analysts say Compaore — who retains his army title of captain — has only modest talents as an orator and often struggles to connect with voters on their main preoccupations.
He is more at home as a mediator in the many conflicts and crises that have faced the wider region in the past two decades.
Compaore was cited in U.N. reports for supporting insurgents during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war that ended in 2002.
He was also initially accused by neighbouring Ivory Coast of backing rebels that seized the north in its 2002-2003 conflict, but eventually became official mediator in efforts to overcome the ensuing political deadlock.
Working in concert with U.S. and French backing, Compaore helped broker a January 15 accord in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou this year that paved the way for elections aimed at restoring civilian rule in Guinea.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that nowadays he is a factor for stability in the region,” analyst Tara O’Connor at London-based Africa Risk Consulting.