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The president stands alone against the opposition front, but he is still favourite to win the elections at the end of the month
United in condemnation of Alassane Ouattara's bid for a third term, but failing to present a coherent alternative, the Ivorian opposition has all but written off its chances of preventing a first-round presidential victory on 31 October. At the same time, the opposition front is demanding postponement of the elections, preparing the ground for mass protest at the likely result.
On the final run to a contest with a potential for violent clashes that many Abidjanais have been dreading, the rhetoric is getting more confrontational and the choices offered to the voters ever starker (AC Vol 61 No 17, The downside of a landslide). A well-resourced incumbent with a solid, if flawed, track record tours the country inaugurating public projects, while his opponents – both the registered challengers and those excluded from the race by judicial fiat – concentrate on disputing his right to stand at all, rather than promoting a positive alternative agenda.
But by doing this, his opponents risk alienating Ivorian electors, who have bitter memories of the six-month blockade and civil war that followed Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to acknowledge his United Nations-certified defeat in the 2010 contest. Fears of a repeat of such tension and violence are baked into the psyche of many Ivorians.
There are also uneasy parallels with elections in 2000 held by junta leader Robert Guéï that excluded Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié, the President ousted the previous year. The clashes over those elections which were won by Gbagbo, the only opposition leader allowed to contest, led to the outbreak of civil war in 2002.
All the players from two decades ago are still on the stage, except for Guéï, killed in the early hours of the civil war. This year it is going to be a tall order for the 86-year-old Bédié to take on the 78-year-old Ouattara by fronting a campaign in the name of change, while supported from exile by Gbagbo and former parliamentary speaker Guillaume Soro, both shut out of the race.
Political tensions are compounded by the impact of Covid-19, which has brought a dramatic slump in hitherto buoyant economic growth. For many urban households, the health risks of the pandemic are compounded by the sheer difficulty of securing enough work and income to put food on the table.
The president has all the usual advantages of incumbency. He has been touring the country inaugurating roads and rural electrification projects, and recently hiked the producer price paid to cocoa farmers. And his Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour le démocratie et la paix (RHDP) is well resourced, with a broad base. He could well benefit from his measured statesmanlike style, and his administration's fairly competent handling of the pandemic. But resentment persists at his U-turn on the retirement he had promised in March.
Many Ivorians are angered by the manner in which the president has pushed the legal limits – on the grounds of a new constitution introduced in 2016 – to restart the two-term limit clock and stand for a third successive mandate after the sudden death in July of his chosen successor candidate, Amadou Gon Coulibaly (AC Vol 61 No 15, Quest for a new dauphin).
His March announcement that it was time to make way for a new political generation had been met with almost universal public applause – and widespread relief. It raised hopes that the departure of one veteran political éléphant might open the path to wider generational change and help the country to move on from a succession of crises from the mid-1990s until Ouattara's accession to office in 2011.
But disillusion crept back as it soon became clear that his government envisaged a very one-sided renewal.
Obscure decade-old corruption charges were mobilised to render the smooth-talking Soro, with his fast-growing youth support, legally ineligible. And it gradually became clear that no early return home would be permitted for Gbagbo either, even though the International Criminal Court – where he remains the subject of a prosecution appeal against his acquittal on human rights charges – had cleared him for travel (AC Vol 60 No 4, All bets are off).
It was rumoured that the threat of financial or tax probes hung over Thierry Tanoh and Jean-Louis Billon, the most likely younger alternatives to Bédié as candidate for the opposition Parti démocratique de la Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI). But in any case, it soon became clear that Bédié – ousted from the presidency in a 1999 military putsch – was determined to seek his personal vindication at the ballot box one more time. So generational change was off the menu in the PDCI too.
A major criticism of Ouattara's term was the overwhelming focus on rejuvenating Abidjan's economy and infrastructure, with spin-off prosperity benefits for the elite, while many rural communities felt less impact. Over the past two years he has tried to rebalance that with a bigger focus on basic development. That now promises to generate a political pay-off, especially in the rural north, the heartland of his support, where opposition candidates are unlikely to make any serious campaigning effort.
The vote is likely to be heavily based on geographically concentrated support, just as happened back in 2010 (see Map). The 2015 contest, with Gbagbo in ICC custody and Bédié supporting Ouattara, is less useful as a guide.
Bédié will be heavily reliant on the votes of his Baoulé heartland in the centre of the country, while Pascal Affi N'Guessan – candidate of the legally registered strand of Gbagbo's Front Populaire Ivoirien – will draw support from the south-west. All contenders can tap into significant wells of support in various districts of the sprawling Abidjan conurbation, with its 8 million or so inhabitants, but Bédié could lose some of the younger PDCI electorate to his party's occasional dissident Kouadio Konan Bertin, now running as an independent.
Ouattara's opponents appear to have given up any serious hope of even taking the race to a run-off ballot in which they could unite around a single standard-bearer, arguing that the contest is certain to be unfair and manipulated. Ever since the publication in August of the final list of 7.5 million registered electors – 13.7% more than at the previous revision of the roll – they have been accusing the electoral commission of bias and demanding an audit of the register and the dissolution of both the commission and the Constitutional Council.
Bédié has called for civil disobedience, while N'Guessan has pulled the FPI out of the electoral commission, to leave only one of the four opposition seats occupied. From exile, Soro has insisted opponents will be organised in challenging the legitimacy of Ouattara's third term.
'The opposition's best chance may lie in its ability to form a common front against President Ouattara. Admittedly, he stands alone in the country – but he has a real capacity to mobilise,' Flan Moquet César, director of the Centre de recherche politique d'Abidjan, told Africa Confidential.
'We now wait to see whether the Ivorian opposition, in its plural diversity, can pull this off. If it can't manage to do so, then Ouattara's candidacy will be all the stronger. On the ground, he has already taken the lead. The cadres of the RHDP have been mobilising their base.'
A key test for the opposition comes on Saturday 10 October, when it hopes to hold a rally in Abidjan's biggest stadium, or on the streets if permission for an event inside is denied. Turnout for its debut joint campaign event was disappointing, so much hangs on this next public show of strength.
Ouattara's diplomatic headaches
So often, Alassane Ouattara has been at the heart of regional diplomatic efforts to manage other countries' crises. This time it is Côte d'Ivoire that is the focus of international concern.
A team from the Economic Community of West African States led by Ghanaian foreign minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, has been in Abidjan this week, on self-proclaimed 'preventive diplomacy'.
They were accompanied by the United Nations special representative to West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who on his previous good offices visit had secured the release of nine senior figures from the Soro political machine who had been held on remand since last December; four more were freed afterwards. But such gestures are not enough to placate opponents demanding a postponement of the election that the government refuses to contemplate.
And it is not only the region that is worried.
President Emmanuel Macron had welcomed Ouattara to the Elysée for lunch on 4 September, but his officials publicly stated that France remained firmly of the view that the Ivorian head of state should have stuck to his retirement plan and left the RHDP to choose a new succession candidate after Amadou Gon Coulibaly's death.
The Ivorian tensions are a headache for Paris. Côte d'Ivoire is a key ally and trade market, and Ouattara himself has been a trusted strategic support – in marked contrast to Laurent Gbagbo, whose indulgence of populist nationalism stirred deep unease for successive French governments.
Yet now Côte d'Ivoire has embarked upon a political path that France feels unable to publicly defend, however much it may be wary of the alternatives. A measure of the Macron government's deep concern was the rapid appointment of Jean-Christophe Belliard, one of the Quai d'Orsay's most senior and experienced Africa specialists, as ambassador in Abidjan. The previous envoy and former senior military officer, Gilles Huberson, was recalled to Paris after being accused of sexual harassment by a staffer in the embassy.
Prior to a stint as deputy head of the European External Action Service, the EU diplomatic machine, Belliard was Africa director at the Quai, after serving as ambassador in Madagascar and Ethiopia.
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