In Côte d’Ivoire it’s back to the old guard
Two ex-presidents and former antagonists have teamed up to urge people to vote against the ruling RHDP in Côte d’Ivoire’s legislative elections on 6 March. According to NAI researcher Jesper Bjarnesen, the vote will be a test of public support for President Alassane Ouattara who was controversially re-elected for a third term in office four months ago.
The Ivorian opposition has changed its strategy since last year’s presidential election when it called for a boycott, after declaring Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term a violation of the Ivorian constitution. Now, it has decided to take part in the vote to elect members of a National Assembly currently dominated by the ruling party.
The former president Laurent Gbagbo, who lives in exile in Belgium, has played a central part in the election run-up, having formed an alliance with the country’s main opposition leader Henri Konan Bédié, who left Ouattara’s ruling coalition in 2018. Gbagbo was acquitted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2019 and is soon expected to return to the country.
The two are urging voters to support opposition candidates to the National Assembly in order to “avoid the consolidation of absolute power in our country” and “to reconcile the Ivorian people”.
The accusations against Ouattara refer to his decision to run for a third term in office. The decision was strongly criticised by the opposition and led to deadly street clashes between supporters of the rival candidates.
Ouattara and his supporters view the country’s new constitution – approved in 2016 following his re-election – as giving him the legal right to run for president again. The opposition maintains that a two-term limit still stands.
In last year’s presidential election, which Ouattara won with 94.27% of the vote, the incumbent president was in effect handed victory by the opposition when it decided to boycott the election, Bjarnesen notes. He says that the upcoming election to the National Assembly will serve as a test of voters’ approval of President Ouattara.
“His voter base seems to accept his reasons for standing for a third term, or they don’t find the question of the presidential mandate to be that important. He also has widespread support because he has been able to provide stability for the last ten years and turn the economy around, with Côte d’Ivoire being among the top five fastest-growing economies worldwide since 2012”.
Ouattara, a long-time favourite of European leaders, only seems “slightly less popular” internationally since his re-election, according to Bjarnesen. He gives the example of French President Emanuel Macron’s soft expressions of concern over the 2020 presidential vote.
New Policy Note on Côte d’Ivoire’s legislative election – out soon.
NAI Senior Researcher Jesper Bjarnesen and Peace and Conflict Researcher Sebastian van Baalen analyse the broader implications of Côte d’Ivoire’s democratic backsliding.
Bjarnesen says that given last year’s tumultuous events, democracy in Côte d’Ivoire appears relatively strong.
“The presidential election had all ingredients for trouble, but the aftermath didn’t become particularly violent. People’s frustration passed pretty quickly and they seemed to accept the result. Most actors and voters accept that political contests should be decided through the democratic system, not in the streets or on the battlefields. The fact that the opposition has decided to participate in the legislative elections also gives legitimacy to the Ouattara government”.
Yet the political situation after Ouattara’s election is still concerning. It leaves the fate of Ivorian democracy in the hands of an individual rather than an institution, according to Bjarnesen.
“Ouattara has been given the mandate to make fundamental decisions for Ivorian democracy. This means that it is up to him, and his inner circle, to decide if he should run for a fourth term in office – that is not how democracy is supposed to work.”
Ouattara also controls the majority of Côte d’Ivoire’s military forces and could use armed force to back his decision, Bjarnesen adds.
“Considering that Côte d’Ivoire came out of armed conflict quite recently, this is cause for concern. It raises questions about which direction Ouattara will take Ivorian democracy in the coming five years or so”.
TEXT: Mattias Sköld
Côte d'Ivoire's three political heavyweights
President Alassane Ouattara (RHDP)
President since 2011. An economist by profession who has worked for the International Monetary Fund and the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). Prime minister from 1990 to 1993 under Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Became president of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party in 1999. In 2018, he launched a new umbrella party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), which he said would help ensure continuity.
Henri Konan Bédié (PDCI)
Former president (1993-1999). Under his presidency, ethnicised politics escalated, eventually defining the fault lines of the 2002-2007 civil war. Leader of Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), whose support was critical to Ouattara's run-off victory in 2010 and re-election in 2015. The two parties later fell out in 2018 over the PDCI's insistence that it should be able to choose the candidate for a joint ticket in 2020. Bédié has since challenged Ouattara and formed an unholy alliance with his former arch-enemy Laurent Gbagbo and the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).
Laurent Gbagbo (FPI)
Gbagbo was president during a turbulent period between 2000 and 2011, when civil warfare divided the country. He refused to accept that Ouattara beat him in the 2010 presidential poll and some 3,000 people were killed in post-election violence before Gbagbo was arrested in April 2011. He was tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but was acquitted in January 2019. He has lived in Brussels since then, pending a possible appeal. In the 6 March legislative elections, for the first time in a decade his branch of the FPI will put forward candidates.