Despite a spike in terrorism and unified second-round opposition, Kabore is clearly favored to win the presidency in the upcoming Burkinabe election.
Update: Correct! (Kabore won with 57.87% of the vote.)
Welcome to Global Guessing!
Here, we examine upcoming events or potential occurrences that carry geopolitical significance, and work to form reasoned, rational predictions regarding the outcome of those events.
Given the focus on elections this year, in conjunction with our admiration for figures like Nate Silver and Philip Tetlock who operate in the world of forecasting and predictions, we felt inspired to attempt our own election prediction. And considering the saturated nature of U.S. election prognostication in media today, we decided it would be best, and also arguably more interesting, to explore a country and an election abroad.
A large part of why U.S. Presidential elections are so closely followed is their significance not only domestically, but across the globe. As such, we wanted to find an election that held geopolitical significance (obviously not as great as that of U.S. elections), but was not garnering nearly the same media coverage. So, for our first article on Global Guessing, we will be talking about the nation of Burkina Faso.
We'll examine the country, present its upcoming election—its second since Burkina Faso's democratic revolution in 2015—and make a prediction on:
How likely is it that Roch Kabore, the current President of Burkina Faso, remains president following the November 22nd, 2020 General Election?
Burkina Faso is a small, land-locked country in West Africa with a population of roughly 21 million. It borders Mali to the North and West, Niger to the East, and is separated from the Atlantic Ocean to the South by the Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, and Ghana.
While under French control, Burkina Faso was viewed as a bridge nation allowing the French to access the natural resources of Mali and Niger from the coastal ports. Today, the French are still very much invested in the progress of Burkina Faso as it is a partner in the fight against the rampant terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa.
In recent decades, a new player has entered the picture in Burkina Faso, and Africa more generally: China. Through their Belt and Road Initiative, China has been able to pull at France’s influence in the Sahel region.
It is no secret that Africa, and in this case West Africa, is dealing with increasing terrorist violence, and all parties involved in the region want to reach a point of peace. The biggest difference in perception between France and China, is their approach to achieving this peace. France is viewed to employ a more aggressive approach to peace-making, stationing a large number of soldiers in Mali, and working to help snuff out the terrorist insurgencies in the area.
China, on the other hand, is seen to have a focus on economic development, and to combat terrorist through job creation and economic stimulation as opposed to more violence. Given the displacement that violence has caused in Burkina Faso, and the poverty that has stricken the young West African nation, China’ presence in the region is only becoming more attractive.
West Africa (with the exception of Nigeria) is also one of the fastest growing regions of the African continent. In 2018 six countries in the region ranked in the Top 10 real GDP growers in Africa, and sits only behind East Africa in growth writ large. Given its profitable trading location, its moving away from France, and China’s already-strong presence in East Africa, Burkina Faso and West Africa as a whole seems to be China’s next focus in Africa.
To this end, President Kabore was quoted saying, “Africa has chosen China … It is our choice and we stick to that” in 2018 at the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Beijing.
Intra-continentally, Burkina Faso partners with its neighbors to combat terrorism in the region. As part of the Liptako-Gourma Authority, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger invest in economic cooperation between the border regions of these three countries, and have recently prioritized security cooperation between the nations as well.
This security cooperation has become increasingly important with the worsening of climate change as northern Burkina Faso. The provinces in the North sit in the Sahel strip, a strip of arid land that cuts across Africa longitudinally. This region of Africa is especially prone to desertification, and, due to its rough terrain, has become a hotbed for terrorist activity. With groups like Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) taking advantage of this regional vulnerability, multilateral security efforts have become essential.
Burkina Faso's Journey to Democracy
Formerly a French colony known as French Upper Volta, the country gained full independence in 1960, becoming the Republic of Upper Volta. The transition, while positive for the people of the Republic of Upper Volta who no longer had to bend to the will of French control, also welcomed what would ultimately be 60 years of political instability.
One of the most significant transitions of power during this 60 year period came about in 1983 when, after a series of coups by the Burkinabe people, military captain Thomas Sankara became President, due in large part to the help of his fellow captain Blaise Compaore.
Sankara was a revolutionary leader, built in the image of Castro. His aggressive social programs such as advocating for women’s rights, providing universal vaccine access, and improving infrastructure within the country garnered Sankara great support. Sankara was also responsible for the changing of the country’s name, from the Republic of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in 1984.
While Sankara’s vision was strong, the execution of his ideas proved to be difficult, and in fitting fashion Burkina Faso was subject to yet another coup which resulted in the assassination of Sankara and the promotion of Blaise Compaore to the Presidency.
Compaore’s rule lasted the longest of any Burkina Faso president, running from 1987 until 2014. Over the course of his reign, Compaore won four elections in 1991, 1998, 2005, and 2010, none of which were perceived to be legitimate.
Comapore’s legacy in Burkina Faso is muddled and its lingering effects may have an impact on the forthcoming election.
Blaise Compaore was a notoriously oppressive ruler. He executed political opposition, squashed peaceful protests, and allied himself with infamous dictators like Muammar Gaddafi and Charles Taylor.
In fact, his eventual ousting in 2014 came on the back of his attempt to amend the Burkina Faso Constitution to extend his 27 year term in office.
Compaore is even suspected of having a hand in the assassination of former president Thomas Sankara, who obtained the title with the help of Compaore less than five year’s prior to his rule.
While ruthless, Compaore’s austere approach towards leadership also afforded Burkina Faso a level of stability not yet experienced by the nation, and not yet realized again. Compaore put in place agreements with the leadership of various terrorist organizations to supply them with information in exchange for neutrality.
As the terrorist landscape evolved in the late stages of his tenure, Compaore’s strategy pivoted in lockstep, deploying military troops from Burkina Faso and on behalf of the Economic Community of West African States, a.k.a. ECOWAS.
After Compaore’s 2014 ousting, a 2015 election saw Roch Marc Christan Kabore come to power. Kabore was a former Burkinabe Prime Minister under Compaore’s rule, and was viewed by some to be a new manifestation of old Compaorean policies. Kabore certainly maintained a strong relationship with France, as Compaore had worked to do during his rule, to the dismay of many, but Kabore’s largest shortcomings has also been one of the most dangerous for Burkina Faso: Security.
Since Kabore’s ascent to power in Burkina Faso, terrorism has become rampant. Since his election in 2015, Burkina Faso, a nation previously unaffected by terrorist activity by and large, fell victim to several attacks, and hundreds of deaths in that time.
Kabore’s rule has also seen a marked increase in sectarian violence. Burkina Faso’s population is partially stratified along tribal lines. Over half of the population (52%) belongs to the Mossi tribe, a heterogeneous group of chiefs and spiritual leaders. Notably, current and former Burkinabe presidents, namely Thomas Sankara, Blaise Compaore, and Roch Marc Christian Kabore, all belonged to the Mossi tribe.
The country is also divided along religious lines with a heavy majority Muslim population, followed by Roman Catholic and various sects of institutionalized spiritualism. The ethnic and religious divisions in the country have exacerbated tensions and violence in Burkina Faso.
On November 22nd, 2020, the people of Burkina Faso will head to the polls to vote for their next President and Parliament. The last time the Burkinabe population voted for either was in 2015 when Presidential incumbent Roch Marc Christian Kabore, a member of the People’s Movement for Progress party, won with 53.5% of the vote.
However, much has changed in the West African nation in the intervening half-decade—the results of which may affect the outcome of this year’s election.
Before we review the most relevant candidates on the ballot, it is important to understand the circumstances and logistics surrounding the upcoming election.
Burkina Faso’s presidential election uses a top-two voting model. This means that first, one round of votes is conducted with each presidential candidate. The top-two candidates in that election are then voted on a second time, with the winner being the ultimate benefactor of the election.
Interestingly, this model is used in some U.S. states, namely California, Washington, and Nebraska, to mitigate disproportionate influence of political parties.
For the same reason, this election model works in Burkina Faso, as the dominance of the party that provided a platform to Compaore and Kabore can be checked. In fact, in September a number of parties opposing Kabore’s incumbency agreed to form a coalition and support whoever Kabore is challenged by in the second round of voting.
The same process is used for Burkina Faso’s Parliamentary election. The country’s parliament is bicameral in structure but unicameral in practice. Constituted of a National Assembly and a Senate through the most recent constitution, the Senate was never actually created leaving the upcoming election focused on the National Assembly.
Issues Affecting the Election
There are a number of issues that will be affecting the outcome of the upcoming elections. First, the coronavirus pandemic is highly likely to affect voter turnout numbers which have historically been good in Burkina Faso.
While the country has handled the pandemic relatively well, recent spikes may dampen the expected electorate.
The average voter turnout for presidential elections in the country is nearly 60%, and that number increases to over 65% for the National Assembly. The highest voter turnout in the country’s election history was in 2012 when the National Assembly election received 75% voter turnout, a 35% turnout increase from the country’s prior election in 2010. That number regressed to 60% in 2015 for both the presidential and parliamentary elections, due in large part to the Arab Spring likely catalyzing voter turnout increase in 2012.
Terrorism in the country is another factor which may affect turnout. More often than not, lower voter turnout will favor the incumbent, and Kabore will likely do what he can to keep turnout low. While poll safety may be a concern for some, however, it will be a motivator to get to the polls for others. The increase in terrorist activities in and around Burkina Faso since Kabore’s ascent to power in 2015 is indicative of both lacking leadership on Kabore’s part, and a lack of learning on his part as well, given that he was Prime Minister under Compaore’s rule.
In addition to Kabore’s track record, he will face stiff opposition this year from weathered political veterans in Burkina Faso. Many candidates this year have participated in past elections, including 2015’s election against Kabore, only now they have more political fodder to critique Kabore’s rule.
In fact, in September it was announced that a coalition of opposing political parties had signed an agreement to coalesce support behind whichever candidate ends up making it to a second electoral round with Kabore. While a second round may not occur, the agreement was historic and may impact election results. While the power of the incumbency is often a boon for a political candidate, in Kabore’s case it may yet be his downfall.
Finally, one issue that will certainly have an effect on the election is the rampant displacement that has occurred in Burkina Faso in the last year. Burkina Faso’s military has been fighting with Islamist militants in the North near the Malian border, displacing over one million people.
Nearly half of these displaced people will not be able to vote in the upcoming election. Due either to lost identification documentation or not being able to register, over an estimated 400,000 people will miss out on this year’s election.
The government has said it can’t register citizens in areas afflicted with terrorist presence, and the electoral commission in charge of running the election is busy preparing ballots.
The effects of potentially lower voter turnout than in past years is difficult to assess.
In the 2015 election Kabore secured 127,113 votes from the Burkinabe communes in the Sahel region, the further-north region in the country. Diabre trailed this number by nearly 50%, with 59,349 votes. The next best candidate had 10,277 votes in the region.
On its face it would seem as though lower voter turnout in the North would negatively impact Kabore’s chances on November 22nd. The percentage share, however, of both Kabore and Diabre’s votes in the Sahel region relative to their overall vote count in 2015 is roughly the same, suggesting lower turnout here would negatively impact both candidates fairly evenly.
What can be claimed with more certainty is that regardless of who wins this election, the pervasive nature of the coronavirus in tandem with voter suppression brought about by terrorist groups, the results of this election may be contested.
If we look to the Malian election in April where incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resigned after unrest follow controversial run-off elections, or Guinea where President Alpha Conde won a third term despite violent protests, it is clear that African citizens in West Africa are demanding more from their representation.
Even the Ivory Coast, another West African nation, has seen unrest after incumbent President Alasanne Ouattara won a third term with 94.3% of the vote.
Kabore’s administration must be aware that there will be significant attention on the outcome of November 22nd, and if he does not make convincing attempts to appease his citizenry and show that this election will be as fair as possible, unrest in Burkina Faso may very well ensue.
The outcome of this election will have impacts on trade markets as well. One of Burkina Faso’s primary exports is gold. While Burkina Faso is not one of the largest gold exporters in the world, for example, it did yield the highest compounded annual growth rate between 2012-2018 in gold export revenue of the top 20 gold exporters, with a 58% CAGR. Notably, only Ghana and South Africa topped Burkina Faso’s raw export revenues in that same time period on the African continent. And South Africa reported a negative CAGR in that time period, at -2%.
While Burkina Faso stands as a relatively cheap trading partner for natural resources currently, if it falls into civil unrest, it may have small ripples in the gold market, and will surely change the landscape of gold exports in Africa.
There will be four candidates to watch for in the upcoming election, although the field will ultimately be much larger:
Roch Marc Christian Kaboré
Kabore is the incumbent. He received a large majority of the votes in 2015, and is viewed as a continuation of much of Compaore’s principles, including his closeness with France. A long-time Burkinabe political operative, Kabore will likely expect to win, and will take steps to ensure that eventuality.
Komboigo is a candidate for and president of the Congress of Democracy and Progress, the opposition party of former president Blaise Compaore. Komboigo was prevented from running in 2015 due to a law that prevented politicians close to Compaore from running.
Diabre is the runner-up from the 2015 presidential election in Burkina Faso. He is the favorite of Kabore’s contenders, and now has fuel against Kabore given what has occurred in the country in the past 5 years.
In 2015 Kabore received 53% of the vote—it is feasible to believe that number will drop and Diabre’s will rise. If he gets the backing of the other parties in the second round of elections, he may have a path to a relatively comfortable win.
Kabore has a 98.79% chance of remaining president of Burkina Faso, making him clearly favored to win.
Our approach to predictions is based on the Good Judgement Project (GJP)–a program started Philip E. Tetlock, Barbara Mellers, and Don Moore. The GJP is comprised of "superforecasters," individuals who demonstrated exceptional capability of accurately predicting geopolitical events. Tetlock and Dan Gardner's Superforecasting showed that superforecasters (who relied on open information) made more accurate predictions than intelligence agency analysts (who had access to classified information).
In a nutshell, superforecasting is the belief that humans can make accurate, concrete predictions about geopolitical events if they apply reason, the base-rate, numeric literacy, and adjust their approaches as they learn their accuracy rate. Superforecasting involves examining a situation by breaking it down into its component parts; examining the multiple parts with data and analysis; viewing these different parts through multiple perspective (mainly the inside and outside view); and synthesizing the perspectives together.
At Global Guessing, we aim to do our own superforecasting by following the "ten commandments" outlined in Superforecasting and applying qualitative and quantitative analytic techniques whenever possible.
With regards to our Burkina Faso prediction, we are relying on qualitative analytics and superforecasting more so than quantitative analysis. The reason for this is two fold: Firstly, and mainly, the quality of data—primarily polling but also long-term demographic and developmental—is poorer than in Western countries; and secondly, because we wanted to get this prediction up before the election :)
Terminology for Prediction
|Likelihood||_ to win.|
|46-54%||[The outcome is a toss-up.]|
Creating the Prediction
Our prediction was based on five steps:
The first step was conducting the qualitative and quantitative research on Burkina Faso so we felt confident in approaching making a prediction and could describe the situation and its importance.
The second step involved breaking down the original question–How likely is it that Roch Kabore, the current President of Burkina Faso, remains president following the November 22nd, 2020 General Election?–into easier to answer sub-questions. Given the top-two nature of Burkinabe elections, the question can be broken down to:
- How likely is it that Kabore wins in the first round of the election?
- How likely is it that Kabore wins outright in the first round?
- How likely is it that Kabore wins in the second round?
- How likely is it that Kabore wins overall?
The next step, step 3, therefore required determining the key factors associated with the component questions:
- The picture told by polling numbers and polling leads.
- The number of incumbent presidents that win re-election.
- The effect of relative country performance.
- The picture told by the previous 2015 election.
- The effect of a top-two voting system.
Step four involved determining what the base-rate effect and Burkina Faso-specific adjustments needed for the key factors in Step 3.
The final step was the most important, executing on steps 3 and 4 from multiple perspective to envision scenarios and outcomes that might have otherwise been ignored before blending these perspectives into a single, final prediction.
Key Factors Affecting Prediction
Polling and survey data
The polling in Burkina Faso is sparse, but clear: Kabore is the clear favorite.
A series of surveys were completed across Burkina Faso's 13 regions and 45 provinces in months of September and October by the Apidon Research and Polling Institute (IROSA) showing a small increase in support for Kabore between the two months, and a better polling position than in August 2015.
Moreover, the survey's found greater confidence in the government than the opposition, a majority intention to vote for the MPP (Kabore's party), and greater favorability for Kabore than his competition. However, the survey also found that Peace and Security was the most important issue in the election for the Burkinabe people.
Result: Kabore is in a strong, if not possibly slightly weaker position, than he was heading into the 2015 General Election which he won.
The incumbency advantage refers to the phenomenon where an incumbent, due to having high name recognition and institutional control, is favored to win re-election.
Result: While situations differ substantially between regions and countries, we feel that in Burkina Faso especially where leaders holding onto power is not uncommon, Kabore will benefit from the incumbency advantage, which helps to underwrite our overall prediction.
Relative performance of Burkina Faso over past 5 years
Although there has been a marked increased in terrorism in Burkina Faso during Kabore's tenure, Burkina Faso's broad, overall performance has been in-line with the region.
Result: Mixed signals for how Kabore will fair relative to five years ago, depending on how you weigh the factors. Overall, given general voter dissatisfaction–64% of surveyed population by Afro Baromter felt Burkina Faso was heading in the wrong direction in 2019–we expect Kabore, as a baseline, to have a lower ceiling than in 2015.
Previous Election Results
In 2015, Kabore won in the first round of the election with 53.49% of the vote (versus 29.65% for second-place, Diabre) while his party won Congress with over 51.30% (versus 20.50% for the main opposition party, and 46.9% for the top-six party opposition).
Result: Depending on the perspective, the previous election paints both a positive and negative picture of Kabore. The positive perspective is that Kabore has shown greater appeal than his party in the past and since Kabore's and the MPP's polling numbers are favorable, Kabore is in a strong position. Conversely, one might recognize that the top-six opposition parties garnered nearly as much support as the MPP (6.59 point election difference)–and given the other developments and factors would indicate an outside, second-round chance for Kabore to be defeated.
COVID, Terrorism, and other crises
Result: The coronavirus pandemic, as well as rampant terrorism and other external crises in Burkina Faso are expected to lead to lower voter turnout and potential dissatisfaction with the current regime.
The format of the Top-Two Electoral System
Result: Top-two elections can favor a governmental structure with a dominant political party, in this case Kabore’s, by splitting opposition votes and excluding minor parties.
The Aggressive (or Outside Chance) Perspective
The aggressive perspective heavily weighs the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the spike in terrorist activity in Burkina Faso, and the unifying of Kabore's opposition in the election outcome. It also takes an aggressive orientation towards how voter numbers will change between now and the prior election, and how much polling error we can account for (and in what direction we swing the polling error–in this case, against Kabore).
The Moderate Perspective
The moderate perspective assumes that while external factors will affect the election outcome, much of the infrastructure in place in 2015 still exists. As such, election results will change, but not to the degree of our aggressive projection. In general, we revert the base-line impact of the factors discussed.
The Conservative Perspective
The conservative perspective assumes only minor deviations in voter behavior from 2015. This perspective also gives little credence to external factors such as Covid-19 and terrorism due to the uncertainty of how they would actually affect the election outcome. Moreover, in general we revert to favoring Kabore since he is the general favorite when uncertain about how a factor might change the outcome. Finally, the conservative perspective assumes a greater chance for fracturing within the unified opposition's support in a second-round vote (should it come to that).
Blending the Perspectives
To reach our prediction, we blend the three perspectives.
In the table below we outline the impact of each election case on Kabore’s chances of being president of Burkina Faso.
Likelihood Kabore Wins in the...
What the table does not illuminate, however, is the likelihood of each case. Only through weighting each case’s probability can we understand the blended perspective.
Ultimately, however, irrespective of weighting, our perspective on the election results is fairly uniform. Weighting the ‘Aggressive’ case at a 10% likelihood, the ‘Moderate’ case at a 30% likelihood, and the ‘Conservative’ case at a 60% likelihood, the blended probability that Kabore is president of Burkina Faso after the election remains an impressive 98.79%.
For Burkina Faso
If Kabore wins, civil unrest will likely follow as we discussed earlier. There seems to be an energy in Africa, specifically the West and North, of uprising and revolution. In Egypt a man self-immolated in protest against corrupt government. The incident took place in Tahrir Square, the catalyst for revolution in Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. While the unrest that follows a potential Kabore victory likely not reach that extent, it can be assumed that the Burkinabe citizenry will, on the whole, not be happy with the result.
If, through an outside chance, Kabore looses, Burkina Faso will be in an interesting position. The new administration, likely Diabre's in that circumstance, would be faced with a number of challenges. An economic mind, Diabre would likely be a boon to Burkina Faso's economic development. Also, as Diabre has taken up the mantle of being a foil to Kabore, the country would likely take on a more open, economically liberal set of principles.
The issue will be how this openness might affect Diabre's mandate to stymie terrorist activity—between terrorism and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, citizens may become disillusioned early into a new regime, leading to further discontent with the Burkinabe government.
Regardless of the result, Burkina Faso will have its hands full stopping up a ship with holes. With a Kabore win, we will ostensibly see much of what has been witnessed the past five years. With a new regime, there will be even greater uncertainty as to the future of the nation. The question is, is uncertainty better than certainty in a time of crisis? Find out on November 22nd.
For Global Guessing
For our next article we plan to cover the upcoming presidential election in Ghana, which will take place on December 7th. Another top-two electoral system in a country which borders Burkina Faso, we feel that our learning from this article will help support our next effort.
There are a number of items which we hope to improve on for our Ghanaian election prediction, both with respect to our approach towards predictions, as well as the actual post itself.
First, after a preliminary search, there seems to be more data available on past elections in Ghana. More data will allow us to make more informed projections for the races we cover. Furthermore, covering more elections will allow us to better calibrate our approach to predictions.
Covering more elections will also help us understand which factors and which data sets are most vital towards predicting these foreign elections. Sometimes taking an ‘unsophisticated’ approach to predictions is useful, as it gets rid of loose, difficult-to-quantify variables. But other times taking a more analytical approach is good. Understanding this balance will only come with time.
We hope to also manifest confidence intervals which will allow us to more effectively leverage our data and our logical reasoning, and ultimately come to more solid conclusions.
In the actual post we hope to experiment with different ways of presenting information, our approach, data, and predictions. We want these articles to be easily accessible—comprehensible to an interested reader with little knowledge of international relations or statistics. By experimenting we can hopefully arrive at a format that is most effective for learning, engaging, and communicating with you all.
To that end, if you liked this post please subscribe!
And, if you made it to the end but aren’t sold on Global Guessing, please give us feedback—we are eager to hear your thoughts on how we can improve—and we hope you’ll give us another shot...or two!
Thank you all so much for reading. We are excited to start Global Guessing and journey to becoming better superforecasters and more informed about the world around us.