The 2 September municipal and regional elections in Côte d’Ivoire ended with a landslide victory for President Alassane Ouattara’s ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). The ruling party captured 123 of the 201 municipalities and 25 of the 30 regions. President Ouattara further cemented his power some weeks later, when the RHDP secured 56 out of 64 seats in the Ivorian Senate. The two main opposition parties, hamstrung by the prominent opposition leader Henri Konan Bédié’s death, lost significant ground, winning a mere 34 municipalities, four regions, and a single senate seat.
The RHDP’s resounding victory is emblematic of its increasing dominance over Ivorian party politics. Coalition-building between Côte d’Ivoire’s three main political factions has long played a critical role in Ivorian politics, and is often credited as a restraint on the worst forms of political violence. With President Ouattara’s latest victories, the need for electoral alliances between at least two out of three main parties is about to be a thing of the past, and the ruling party no longer needs political partnerships to win elections or govern the country.
Instead, the RHDP now single-handedly dominates all elected institutions from the municipal to the presidential level. This dominance may well bring about the death of coalition politics in the West African country, a concerning development in a region caught in a wave of democratic backlash.
Whither the PDCI?
The local elections threw cold water on the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast’s (PDCI) hope of regaining power in the near future. Côte d’Ivoire’s oldest political party made a serious investment in the local polls. Yet, longstanding party leader Bédié’s death on 1 August 2023 and the RHDP’s tightened control of the political space dealt a devastating blow to the PDCI’s ambitions, leaving the party in control of less than half of the municipalities and regions it captured in 2018.
The poor showing in the polls, coupled with the fact that the party has long suffered from Bédié’s ageing leadership, the lack of a clear electoral strategy, and on-and-off relationship with the ruling party further emphasised the need for a new generation to take over.
Laurent Gbagbo’s failed comeback
Côte d’Ivoire’s second opposition party, former President Laurent Gbagbo’s African People’s Party (PPA-CI), also failed to impress. After his acquittal by the International Criminal Court in the Hague in 2021, Gbagbo returned to Côte d’Ivoire. Many supporters hoped Gbagbo would awaken his dormant political base.
To their disappointment, Gbagbo’s dwindling charisma is no longer sufficient to attract votes, resulting in the failure of key PPA-CI candidates to regain control over former Gbagbo strongholds. Most spectacularly, the PPA-CI lost in Yopougon, Abidjan’s most populous commune and Gbagbo’s most symbolic stronghold. Although the PPA-CI has cried foul and accused the government of vote rigging, the bigger issue seems to be the PPA-CI’s failure to reactivate a support base that has boycotted all post-2011 elections.
Turnout remained low in many former Gbagbo strongholds, with key constituencies like Yopougon and Daloa reporting turnout rates at less than 30%. Thus, two years into its existence, the PPA-CI still struggles to reinsert itself into Ivorian electoral politics.
Free and peaceful polls
With memories of the deadly 2010–2011 post-electoral violence and 2020 third-term crisis still fresh, and worries that Gbagbo’s return would turn up the heat, observers and voters alike feared local outbreaks of violence during the municipal polls. Fortunately, despite a few isolated altercations and assaults on election workers, no large-scale violence accompanied the elections and the overall election climate remained peaceful. Moreover, while Côte d’Ivoire is losing ground on international democracy rankings, Ivorian monitoring group Aube Nouvelle reported no outright vote rigging or electoral misconduct.
At the same time, the electoral deck is increasingly stacked against the opposition.
Human rights watchdogs have long documented how harassment and intimidation prevents the opposition from effectively competing with the ruling party. As late as 2020, the Constitutional Council rejected some 40 presidential candidatures on technicalities. In addition, a 2020 criticised voter registration process and electoral redistricting in Ouattara’s northern strongholds has created an unfair playing field that boosts the ruling party’s electoral performance.
As summarised by the latest Freedom House assessment:
“Opposition parties have little chance of gaining power without reforming the electoral framework, which favors the ruling party.”
The death of coalition politics and the future of democracy
The demise of coalition politics has serious ramifications for the future of Ivorian democracy. Previous governments, including that of Gbagbo in 2000–2010 and Ouattara’s different governments in 2011–2020, all relied on coalition-building to govern and ensure electoral victory. However, Ouattara’s current government, strengthened by its success in the municipal polls, can operate without such constraints and govern more or less as it sees fit.
Moreover, as the 2023 election results demonstrate that the opposition cannot influence policy through the ballot box, there is a growing risk that disenfranchised groups will feel a need to engage in street action, violence, or military uprisings to express their grievances.
The emergence of a ruling party with limited constraints comes at a poor time for Côte d’Ivoire. Democratic backsliding is in fashion throughout West Africa, with military coups recently hitting neighbouring Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso and electoral authoritarianism on the rise in Senegal and Ghana. At the same time, coastal West African countries are mobilising to prevent a jihadist insurgency in the Sahel from spilling further south, a crisis that demands that, but also empowers political leaders to, take extraordinary political action.
Standing strong against the growing authoritarian tide while simultaneously countering violent extremism will require both accountability and political checks-and-balances. As Côte d’Ivoire seeks to navigate these dangerous waters and looks ahead towards the next presidential election, the most recent polls suggest that such checks on political power may already be a thing of the past.
Sebastian van Baalen is an Associate Senior Lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University.
Tor Richardson Golinski is a research assistant at the same department.