A New Day in Côte d’Ivoire?

The incumbent Alassane Ouattara’s electoral sweep might be a good outcome for Côte d’Ivoire.

Ky Chung, UN Photo, via Flickr CC.

The contrast between the October 2015 (two Sundays ago) and 2010 presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire could not be any starker. In 2010, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down, despite internationally-endorsed electoral results which indicated the victory of his rival, Alassane Ouattara. A four-month stand-off ensued, with both men declaring themselves president. In April 2011, pro-Ouattara forces swept into the country’s commercial capital, Abidjan, and captured Gbagbo (with some assistance from France and the UN), paving the way for Ouattara to assume the presidency. The post-electoral fighting resulted in about 3,000 deaths and a million displaced people. A few months later, Laurent Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to account for his role in the post-electoral violence. Against this backdrop, the 2015 election was laudable for its absence of violence. There were virtually no serious incidents reported anywhere in the country. The election was peaceful, deemed free and fair by election observers and the outcome — Ouattara’s resounding victory with 83,66% of the vote in the first round — was accepted by his rivals.

Ouattara’s margin of victory and the distribution of his support also mark a clear difference with the 2010 election. The 2010 poll produced very strong regional electoral cleavages, with Ouattara gaining the vast majority of his votes in the (largely Muslim) North and Gbagbo drawing his support from the (largely Christian) South. These patterns clearly replicated the division between the two sides in the country’s recent civil war.  It is all the more striking then that in 2015 Ouattara received the majority of the vote in all but 2 of the country’s 30-plus regions. While voters’ area of residence and their religion were very strong predictors of vote choice in 2010, they no longer played such a role in the most recent election.

Yet, Ouattara’s overwhelming victory throughout the country should not be seen as synonymous with a complete reconciliation between the previously hostile parts of the country. Some tension, antipathy and resentment of perceived “victor’s justice” are still palpable in the South. Ouattara’s forces were never held to account for their role in the post-electoral violence, a role recently criticized by the Human Rights Watch. Rather, many Ivorians probably concluded that Ouattara’s victory was inevitable in the absence of any viable opposition to him. Gbagbo’s Popular Ivorian Front lost much of its weight since Gbagbo’s downfall, with the successor, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, garnering only 9.3% of the vote. Indeed, turnout in former Gbagbo strongholds in the South was lower than in the North, indicating that many of Ouattara’s opponents decided to stay home, rather than actively support any of his rivals. At 54.1%, the electoral turnout for the country as a whole was still respectable, but considerably lower than the 80% recorded in 2010.

Remarkably, much of the Ivorian political class seemingly came to the conclusion that it was better to join the incumbent than to campaign against his. Ouattara’s striking electoral “knockout” owed much to the “bandwagoning” of some of his former adversaries. Chief among them was Henri Konan Bedié who endorsed Ouattara and actively campaigned for him. Bedié’s support of Ouattara appears all the more calculated because of Bedié’s history of questioning Ouattara’s nationality, with the infamous concept of Ivoirité, aimed to exclude many Northerners from participating in politics. This time around Bedié and his spokesmen told voters in the center of the country that voting for “Alassane [Ouattara] was the same thing as voting for him [Bedié].” Several other Ouattara’s rivals withdrew from the presidential campaign.

Still, despite the cynicism of the political class, Ouattara’s electoral sweep might be a good outcome for Côte d’Ivoire. His resounding victory throughout the country could help overcome to some extent the divisive legacy of the civil war. More importantly, an orderly election without violence is a good step towards recovery, helping the country heal and continue its economic growth. Yet, in the long term, Côte d’Ivoire would benefit from more robust and principled opposition.

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