OUAGADOUGOU Burkina Faso began voting on Sunday in parliamentary elections that will determine if long-serving President Blaise Compaore has the power to ditch constitutional term limits and run for another period in office in 2015.
The election follows a turbulent 2011 in the cotton and gold producing west African nation, which saw protests and army mutinies over salaries and living conditions that appeared to threatened Compaore's 25-year rule.
Both critics and allies say Compaore's ruling CDP party is seeking a decisive majority in Sunday's polls so it can tweak the constitution to remove term limits, an effort that failed in 2011 under the current legislative makeup.
"The (ruling) party is applying the program of a president who is close to the end of his presidential term (in 2015). But under our laws, it is not excluded that the rules could be changed to allow the president to continue," Compaore's brother and legislative candidate Francois Compaore told Reuters.
"All will depend on the Burkina people."
President Compaore, 61, seized power in a 1987 coup and has since won presidential elections four times, often against opposition complaints of rigging.
Despite his violent rise to power, Compaore has become a self-styled peacemaker in West Africa, taking up mediation roles in crises in the region, most recently in coup- and rebellion-stricken Mali, and previously in Ivory Coast and Guinea.
The country adopted term limits of two five-year terms in 2000, but the constitutional court said the rule would not begin to apply to Compaore until the end of his 2000-2005 term.
About 4.3 million voters are expected to cast ballots to elect an expanded 127-member parliament. The CDP holds 73 out of parliament's current 111 seats.
By late morning, scores of people holding their voting cards were lined up outside polling stations in the capital Ouagadougou, a city of 1.5 million people nestled in the southern reaches of the arid Sahel.
"Even if I have to wait for hours, I will cast my vote," said student Kader Ouattara, who said this election was the first in which he was old enough to cast a ballot. He, like many, did not want to discuss who he would vote for.
Days ahead of the poll, a Burkinabe court jailed seven gendarmes for taking part in last year's military mutinies, in the first trial linked to the outburst of deadly riots, protests and looting in the normally peaceful country.
Local observers and the opposition say Francois Compaore, who is seeking a seat in parliament on the CDP ticket for the first time after serving as an economic adviser to his older brother for over 20 years, is a potential successor.
If elected to parliament, he could take the helm of the national assembly, a constitutional stepping-stone to the presidency in case of a vacancy.
The ruling party will be up against a fragmented opposition after 74 parties fielded candidates for the polls.
But Norbert Tiendrebeogo, president of the opposition Social Forces Front (FFS), said the opposition was confident of blocking the ruling party's plans.
"If the CDP end ups with about only 40 or 50 seats in the new 127-seat parliament, it will be a major step for the opposition," Tiendrebeogo told Reuters.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Roger Atwood)