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Côte d’Ivoire 2015 Presidential Polls. A Low Risk Election?

Published 29 Oct 2015

The 2015 presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire will be on many respects different from the 2010 election that spurred the resumption of the Ivorian civil war. There is no comparable risk of violence and it seems likely that the elections will be peaceful, with minor sporadic incidents. However, the positive impact of the election on democratization and peacebuilding is questionable.

The 2010 Ivorian presidential election took place in a post-conflict context after having been postponed for five years. Côte d’Ivoire was divided since 2002 between a Northern half occupied by the insurgent Forces Nouvelles (FN) and a Southern half under control of president Laurent Gbagbo. After the conclusion of a peace agreement in 2007, the elections were seen as another major step towards achieving the reunification of the country and the return to normality. The polls pitted the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, supported by the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), against the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP), an alliance including the other two major Ivorian parties, the Rassemblement Des Républicains (RDR) chaired by Alassane Ouattara and the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) of former president Henri Konan Bédié. Ouattara and Bédié both ran for presidency, but when the Ouattara passed the first round, Bédié and the PDCI supported him against Gbagbo. The 2010 poll was an unusually open election, with all the three main candidates having a chance to reimport the scrutiny. Another singular feature of the 2010 elections was the level of international monitoring. Not only all the major international and regional organizations deployed observers, but the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), head of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), was asked to ‘certify’ all the stages of the electoral process. When Gbagbo and the Constitutional Council, controlled by a pro-incumbent chairman, refused to recognize the results proclaimed by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the SRSG sided with the IEC, supporting Ouattara as the winner of the elections. A major crisis followed until Ouattara, supported by the FN and by the military intervention of French and UN peacekeepers, managed to get control of the South of the country and its main city Abidjan. Although the 2010 election is often associated to the post electoral crisis, it should be also remembered that it was arguably the fairest presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire’s history.

The stakes in the forthcoming election, which takes place four years and a half after the installation of president Ouattara, are much lower. As a consequence of three major developments, it seems almost sure that the incumbent president will be reconfirmed for a second mandate, possibly without a run-off.

First, with what has become known as the ‘Daoukro Appeal’, PDCI president Henri Konan Bédié declared one year ago his support for Ouattara and the decision of the PDCI not to present a candidate. Bédié, who cannot himself run again for the presidency, being beyond the Constitutional limit of seventy-five years of age, has been accused by a faction of his party of undermining the PDCI interest. Several former PDCI politicians have decided to run as independent candidates. However, because of lack of support from their party and of their own flaws, they are unlikely to pose a real challenge to Ouattara. The most important independent candidate is former prime minister Charles Konan Banny. Although he has been recently nominated president of the Coalition pour le Changement, the main coalition opposing Ouattara’s re-election, Banny is not very popular among the Ivorian public. Most Ivorians see his engagement as president of the Commission Dialogue Vérité et Reconciliation, a commission created to address the problems of truth-seeking and reconciliation after the 2010-2011 crisis, as an utter failure. While Banny has made repeated efforts to attract Gbagbo’s former supporters, his political history does not make him entirely credible among them.

The second key event has been the split of the FPI party and the decision of the splinter faction to boycott the presidential elections. At the beginning of 2015 a major crisis pitted party president Pascal Affi N’guessan, released in 2013 after two years of detention, and the ‘old-guard’ of the party, represented by men like the then vice-president Aboudramane Sangaré and former interim president Laurent Akoun. The affaire went into court and Affi N’guessan, now a presidential candidate, obtained the exclusive legal right to use the party name and logo.  However, it is currently the splinter faction that retains the support of most of Gbagbo’s former electors. It is backed by the former president himself, who continue to play a major role in Ivorian politics in spite of being detained by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. While some partisans of Gbagbo might vote for Affi N’guessan, Konan Banny or for other opposition candidates, it is likely that the majority will follow the appeal to boycott the polls.

The third obstacle on Ouattara’s road has been removed on 10 September, when the Constitutional Council has declared him eligible in the elections. This decision overrode a previous decision of the Constitutional Council, which prevented Ouattara from running in the   2000 presidential elections on the basis of article 35 of the then new Ivorian Constitution. Article 35 states that a presidential candidate should be born of an Ivorian father and mother they themselves born Ivorian; in addition, he must never have claimed a nationality other than the Ivorian one. Ouattara clearly does not met the second condition and possibly neither the first: it is widely believed in Côte d’Ivoire that article 35 was meant to exclude him from politics. In the 2010 elections, the incumbent president was allowed to be a candidate on an exceptional basis as part of the peace negotiations. The president denounced in the past the exclusivist nature of article 35 and was expected  to start a process of reform once in power. He has however never done it, possibly because, according to the law, is not fully confident that the result of a Constitutional referendum would be favourable. Last February, however, Constitutional Council president Francis Wodié, a man widely reputed for his integrity, resigned in unclear circumstances. It has been his successor,  Mamadou Koné, a president’s loyalist, who has taken the decision on Ouattara’s eligibility.

While a number of donor organizations and NGOs have launched activities aiming at reducing the risk of electoral violence, a large scale confrontation does not seem likely. In addition to appointing a new head of the Constitutional Council, Ouattara has revised the composition of the IEC in a manner that is favourable to him and a scenario comparable to 2010 is highly improbable. In general, the elections will not be competitive enough to turn violent.

Considering the low stakes of the poll, the European Union has declared that it will not send electoral observers. Its example will be most likely followed by other non African observer organizations. At the same time, the electoral mandate of UNOCI has been dramatically reduced and the SRSG has not anymore the role of certificator. Unfortunately, this sends a very detrimental message to the Ivorian public: that double standards are applied and that Ouattara, differently from Gbagbo, is allowed to control the electoral process without external checks. While it contributed to enforce the elections results in 2010, the world is now watching without reactions  what risks to become the de facto consolidation of a semi-authoritarian regime. Indeed, although it proclaims its adherence to democracy, the RHDP is clearly nostalgic of the single-party era of first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The government’s record in respecting civil liberties is questionable: many Gbagbo partisans are detained without a proper trial and demonstrations organized by pro-Gbagbo groups others than the pro-Affi faction of the FPI are routinely denied authorizations and dispersed by the police. The FPI split itself appears to have been in part instigated by the Ouattara regime, in order to weaken the opposition.Although massive violence will probably not take place during the elections, the Ivorian society remains strongly polarized. Gbagbo’s partisans, who are not a few (the incumbent president received 45% of the votes in 2010), deem, rightly or wrongly, that they are treated unjustly and marginalized since the end of the conflict. There is thus a risk that reconciliation will not be served by this election. The main responsibility for this situation is, of course, of the Ivorian political forces themselves, both those in the government and in the opposition. However, the international community should not give the impression that it considers that, because of the relative absence of electoral violence, Côte d’Ivoire has fully overcome the 2002-2011 crisis.

Giulia Piccolino is from the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Hamburg. This article was originally published in the Italian Institute for International Political Studies on 23 October 2015. It is republished with permission.