Despite the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Côte d’Ivoire stands firm in their intention to hold presidential polls as scheduled on 31 October. However, because of the exclusion of numerous candidates and the decision of incumbent President Alassane Ouattara to run for a third term, the elections will be controversial and risk being accompanied by violence and loss of life.
Ouattara’s first election in 2010 took place when the country was still de facto divided between a government-controlled south and the north occupied by the Forces Nouvelles (FN) rebels, following a long period of instability. The elections, supposed to mark a return to normalcy, were instead followed by renewed violence and controversy. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his electoral defeat and Ouattara needed the support of the FN and of the international community to assume power.
Since 2011, Ouattara has dominated Ivorian politics. He was triumphantly re-elected in 2015 with the support of a large coalition, the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP), which included former President Henri Konan Bédié and his Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), the country’s oldest party.
Ouattara’s administration claims a positive balance regarding economic growth and macroeconomic stability, with GDP growth rates between 10.7% and 6.9%. However, Ouattara’s successes are more limited when it comes to reducing poverty and fostering reconciliation. The Institute of National Statistics estimated that, between 2008 and 2015, the poverty rate shrunk only by 2.6%. In the Human Development Index, Côte d’Ivoire still lags behind other African countries with a lower GDP per capita, such as Benin and Uganda. The performance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the Ivorian government was also disappointing and the arrest of numerous pro-Gbagbo personalities after 2011 alimented perceptions of a ‘victor’s justice’ among the population. The intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) did not help in this respect. Gbagbo and youth leader Charles Blé Goudé were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity and kept in custody until 2019, the year in which they were eventually acquitted. However, the court failed to prosecute human rights violations committed by pro-Ouattara forces. Although released by the ICC in 2019, the 75 year-old Gbagbo is currently stuck in Brussels because of the sentence of an Ivorian tribunal that has condemned him to 20 years of jail.
During Ouattara’s second term, the broad alliance that supported the President in 2011 has gradually fallen apart. The transformation of the RHDP into a single party in 2018 and Ouattara’s insistence on picking the candidate of the government coalition for the 2020 elections have disrupted the power balance within it. Bédié has broken with Ouattara and announced his intention to run for President for the PDCI, in spite of being 86 years old. The relationship between the President and the former FN, whose role was key in allowing him to assume power in 2011, has also deteriorated. Former FN leader Guillaume Soro, who has long been open about his intention to run in the 2020 election, has been prosecuted by the Ivorian justice for an alleged coup d’etat attempt and subsequently condemned in absentia to 20 years of prison for embezzlement in April 2020. Soro’s claim that he is targeted for political reasons has been vindicated by a verdict of the African Court of Human and People’s Rights, which has asked that his civil and political rights are restored.
The troubles incurred by Soro have convinced many Ivorians that the RHDP wants to secure the victory of their candidate before the polls open. These fears have also been strengthened by a controversial reform of the electoral code last April. Presidential candidates are now required to satisfy several onerous conditions, such as collecting the signatures of 1% of the electorate in at least half of the regions of Côte d’Ivoire.
A last major contention between Ouattara and the opposition is the decision of the President to run for a third term. This was not initially part of Ouattara’s plans. The 78-year-old President had repeatedly stated that he intended to leave power to a new generation. However, Ouattara’s handpicked successor, Prime Minister Amadou Gbon Coulibaly, died suddenly of a heart attack on 8 July 2020, leaving the RHDP without a candidate just three months from elections. This led Ouattara to reconsider his decision and announce on 6 August 2020 that he will seek a third term.
The announcement caused immediate tensions. The opposition staged demonstrations in several parts of the country, which degenerated into clashes, killing at least fourteen people. Amnesty International collected evidence showing that the police allowed men armed with machetes and sticks to attack the demonstrators. On 19 August, the government forbade demonstrations throughout the country.
The opposition claims that Ouattara’s third term is unlawful, because the Ivorian Constitution states that the President can be re-elected only once. However, on 3 September, the Constitutional Council endorsed Ouattara’s bid, arguing that, because the current constitution was adopted in 2016, the provision does not apply retroactively. The Council also rejected the applications of forty candidates, including Gbagbo, Soro and several RHDP dissidents. The Council’s verdict has intensified the perception of a rigged election, as only three candidates other than Ouattara have been accepted: Bédié, whose age and lack of popularity make it unlikely that he can gather all the opposition behind him, and Pascal Affi N’guessan and Kouadio Konan Bertin, two unsuccessful challengers in the 2015 elections who are suspected of being manoeuvred by the government. The verdict of the Constitutional Council has predictably angered the opposition. Bédié has called for ‘civil disobedience’, while Soro has claimed from Paris that ‘keeping this 31 October election has no sense’. It is, however, unclear how much capacity to mobilize the population the opposition has.
The current scenario has a flavour of history repeating itself. The manipulation of electoral rules and the exclusion of prominent politicians from running in the election have been a standard staple in Côte d’Ivoire since the end of single-party rule in 1990. Such violations of democracy have been committed by all the main political forces. Ironically, before his election in 2011, Ouattara was a major victim of political exclusion. He was prevented from running under the Bédié presidency in 1995 – a poll that was also boycotted by the opposition– and at the end of a brief period of military rule in 2000, in both cases because of polemics about his nationality. In the 2000 election, restrictive eligibility conditions were also used to prevent Bédié and other PDCI politicians from running. In 2010, in a scenario with inverted roles, Gbagbo used the Constitutional Council, at the time under his control, to try to overturn Ouattara’s election.
The sense of déjà vu is also reinforced by the fact that, far from marking the emergence of a ‘new generation’, the current election seems still dominated by the same old men that have controlled Ivorian politics since the 1990s – Ouattara, Bédié and Gbagbo – plus Soro who, although considerably younger (he is 48 years old), has also been a protagonist in the troubled past history of the country. The fact that alliances are continuingly shifting, with opposition politicians making common front against the incumbent and then breaking up once in power, seems more a sign of continuity than a sign of change.
While some political commentators make bleak predictions, evoking the 2002 and 2011 civil wars, the situation is, however, in several respects different. What spurred generalized instability in the past was that rivalries between the political elites overlapped with tensions between ethno-regional groups at the grassroots level. In particular, in the 2000s, the Ouattara-Gbagbo rivalry was compounded by the conflict between ‘autochthonous’ and migrants (both internal and external) around issues of citizenship and land ownership. Today, the picture is more confused. Although the opposition has occasionally tried to again evoke the issue of Ouattara’s citizenship, ethnic communities are split: the youngest and most ruthless opponent, Soro, is, like Ouattara, a ‘Northerner’. Although perceived as representing the largest ethnic group of the country, the Baoulé, Bédié is unpopular within his own party, and has to face two other Baoulé candidates, Affi N’guessan and Kouadio Bertin. Rather than a full-scale armed confrontation, the most likely scenario is that of an election accompanied by occasional turmoil and government repression against opposition supporters. Given past mutinies by former FN soldiers, a coup d’état also appears possible, but unlikely.
A difference between the past and today also lies in the attitude of the international community. In 2010, the UN, which had a peacekeeping mission deployed in the country, Western countries and the Economic Community of the West African States took a clear stance against Gbagbo’s ‘legal coup d’état’. The attention of Western countries and the UN today is absorbed by the challenges of Islamic extremism in the Sahel area, and by concerns about migration. Preoccupied with stability more than democracy, international actors have neither the desire nor the strength to get into a confrontation against Alassane Ouattara and the RHDP similar to the one they engaged in against Gbagbo in 2010-2011.