The high stakes and low suspense of Côte d’Ivoire’s upcoming elections

By Sophie T. Rosenberg*

When Ivoirians go to the polls this Sunday, only one outcome looks likely. However, that doesn’t mean the country is united.


One of the many billboards in support of President Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Sophie Rosenberg.
One of the many billboards in support of President Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Sophie Rosenberg.

In Côte d’Ivoire’s upcoming election this Sunday, there will be 8 candidates competing for the presidency – though one wouldn’t be able to tell from travelling around Abidjan. Around the city, there are hundreds of bright, sleek campaign billboards, but they are almost all for incumbent President Alassane Dramane Ouattara (known as ‘ADO’). Adorned with the national colours of orange, white, and green, their powerful marketing signals to Ivoirians that a vote for Ouattara is a vote for the entire country.

The difficulty of spotting billboards for the president’s opponents meanwhile reflects the general feeling here that Ouattara will win a second term – whether in the first round on 25 October or in the run-off on 22 November.

High stakes, low suspense

Côte d’Ivoire’s previous elections in 2010 pitted then-president Laurent Gbagbo against Alassane Ouattara. Those polls were supposed to rescue the country from a long civil war that had split the country between the government-controlled south and the rebel-controlled north.

This clearly failed – the results were heavily disputed and over 3,000 died in the post-election crisis. In its aftermath, once Ouattara was installed as president, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation and eventually issued arrest warrants for Laurent Gbagbo, former first lady Simone Gbagbo, and former Minister of Youth and Employment Charles Blé Goudé. While Simone Gbagbo remains detained in Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé were transferred to the ICC and are awaiting their trial, charged with crimes against humanity.

Five years on from that deadly episode, these presidential elections are seen as a crucial test for Ouattara’s policies of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. The UN’s Aïchatou Mindaoudou even referred to the elections as a chance for Ivoirians to “exorcise the 2010-2011 crisis”.

The upcoming polls are thus an unusual mix: the stakes are very high, yet the outcome seems certain. On the one hand, the history of violent political transitions serves as a worrying backdrop. The systemic causes of the civil war have not yet been fully addressed, and the perception of one-sided justice stokes tension as national and international courts have so far only tried the pro-Gbagbo side.

But on the other hand, impressive economic progress during Ouattara’s presidency, a sense of ‘conflict fatigue’, and a highly fractured opposition mean that the suspense around the election results is fairly low.

Who are the candidates?

Ouattara hails from the RDR party (Rassemblement des Républicains) which, in these elections, is supported by coalition partner, the PDCI (Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire). The decision by PDCI leader Henri Konan Bédié to support Ouattara – a move known as the “Daoukro call” – was not supported by the whole party, however, and many left to form a rebel coalition known as the CNC (Coalition nationale pour le changement). Charles Konan Banny, Ouattara’s former ally and ex-president of the Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation Commission, was recently chosen to be the CNC’s candidate.

The CNC has also attracted dissenters from the main opposition party, the FPI (Front Populaire Ivoirien). First created and led by Laurent Gbagbo, the FPI has fractured between hardliners and moderates. The former insist on protesting against the country’s imperfect electoral system and focusing on the past. They demand Gbagbo’s release from The Hague and claim there is a pro-Ouattara bias in the national electoral commission. As such, hardliners have decided to break with the rest of the party, boycott these elections and loosely align themselves with the CNC. Since the chances of Gbagbo’s release are unrealistic, to put it mildly, this part of the group’s demands seems more symbolic than serious.

Representing the FPI moderates, candidate Pascal Affi N’Guessan also calls for Gbagbo’s release but argues that ‘empty chair politics’ will only hurt the party. He considers himself Gbagbo’s “disciple” while the former president is on trial, but his ex-colleagues accuse N’Guessan of betraying Gbagbo by running under the FPI banner. In their eyes, he can only serve as token opposition and is thereby legitimising Ouattara’s bid for the presidency.

While political heavyweights Charles Konan Banny and Pascal Affi N’Guessan could theoretically present a strong challenge to Ouattara, the inchoate nature of the CNC and the fractured FPI make this unlikely.

Inequality, injustice and insecurity

Côte d’Ivoire’s dramatically growing economy, boasting a predicted annual growth rateof over 8%, is attracting major international investment. Perfectly timed for Ouattara’s campaign, Heineken announced it will open a brewery in Côte d’Ivoire, the International Cocoa Organisation announced it will relocate from London to Abidjan, and superstore Carrefour is opening in central Abidjan after the elections.

Nevertheless, many feel the fruits of economic progress have not trickled down. The purchasing power of most Ivoirians remains frustratingly low. Political opponents are predictably capitalising on this unevenness of growing prosperity, stressing that Ouattara has created not only unequal justice but also unequal progress. Anticipating this, Ouattara’s campaign pre-emptively chose the slogan “Succeed together” (“Réussir ensemble”).

Ouattara’s record on inequitable post-conflict justice has become a liability for his campaign too. All candidates are thus vaunting their ability to reconcile the country. Charles Konan Banny refers to his experience and frustrations as former head of the Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation Commission. Meanwhile, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who was imprisoned for two years following the crisis, emphasises the wisdom of reconciliation he learnt while in detention. As evidence of Ouattara’s unequal economic progress and national reconciliation, N’Guessan also points to the gangs of armed youth in the streets of Abidjan, known as ‘germs’ (‘microbes’), as victims of trauma from the 2010-2011 crisis whom the state has failed to support.

Even beyond economic inequality and the perception of victor’s justice, various other issues – such as constitutional eligibility of candidates, land reform, sectarianism, incomplete disarmament of former rebels, and the circulation of small arms – also provide underlying sources of tension and continue to brew below the surface.

 Beyond Côte d’Ivoire

With contested elections earlier this month in neighbouring Guinea and an uncertain future in Burkina Faso, many observers are placing high hopes on Côte d’Ivoire to serve as an example of peaceful democratic transition in the region. US Secretary of State John Kerry has called on the country to “resume its position as a regional leader”, while the European Union, in a vote of confidence in the electoral infrastructure, announced it would not be sending an observation mission.

The elections will also be an indirect test for the ICC. Observers often judge the Court by assessing its impact on domestic reconciliation, and the Prosecutor’s much-criticised strategy of only prosecuting the pro-Gbagbo side will be put into perspective by how Côte d’Ivoire holds its first presidential election since the crisis.

Cool, calm and collective elections?

While the announcement of the official list of candidates in mid-September sparked political protests that killed and injured several, most expect the elections to proceed relatively peacefully.

However, adding an unnecessary complicating factor, judges at the ICC scheduled the opening hearing in the trial of Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé for 10 November, right in the middle of the first and second round of the elections. While the ICC is often accused of being too political, this decision seems politically blind, particularly since the case focuses on post-election violence. In case violent disagreement develops around the election, this poor timing could exacerbate the situation.

Côte d’Ivoire has over 6.3 million voters, but another question is whether they will vote. Political inclusiveness, and the degree to which the country’s leadership actually represents the population, has been an exceptionally divisive issue at the core of conflict in the country. In 2010, over 80% of voters participated in the first round. But this time, many voters do not feel any candidate adequately represents their views.

Knowing that voter turnout will determine the impact of these elections, the Ouattara campaign fears voter abstention more than political competition. The incumbent looks almost certain to still be in office come next month, but low turnout would weaken Ouattara’s legitimacy and ability to help the country “succeed together”.

*Source African Arguments.Sophie T. Rosenberg is a PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge focusing on justice and post-conflict transition in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. You can follow her on Twitter @soph_rosenberg.

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