The making of a dinosaur? Côte d’Ivoire’s 2020 elections

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In early 2020, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper proclaimed, “Africa’s dinosaurs are dying out”. With incumbent president Alassane Ouattara running for a controversial third term, Côte d’Ivoire seems to have a new dinosaur in the making. Dramatic electoral contests in the past twenty years have led to widespread upheaval and armed conflict in the country. Against growing fears that violence will mark the 2020 presidential election as well, we unpack Alassane Ouattara’s incentives and options, and outline the most likely election scenarios.

The main actors in the 2020 elections

Côte d’Ivoire’s 2020 presidential elections have developed into another stand-off between three men who have shaped Côte d’Ivoire’s political landscape since the 1990s: incumbent president Alassane Ouattara (RHDP), Henri Konan Bédié (RDA-PDCI), and Laurent Gbagbo (FPI). In spite of a tentative farewell from the political scene, these old men continue to cling to the leadership of their respective parties.  All three have held the presidency, all three were central figures in the 2002–2011 civil war and post-electoral crisis, and all three continue to rally the support of their constituencies despite their mature age and the availability of a new generation of political leaders.

Some things have changed. Laurent Gbagbo, ousted in the aftermath of the 2010–2011 post-electoral crisis, remains in exile in Europe. While he was indicted by the International Criminal Court and subsequently acquitted, he remains subject to a 20 year prison sentence in absentia by an Ivorian court. He is currently barred from entering the country and ineligible to run in the elections. Despite this marginalisation, Laurent Gbagbo still commands considerable support within FPI ranks. This has weakened its current president, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who is one of the four candidates in the October 31 elections and one of two prominent opposition leaders.

Henri Konan Bédié leads the second opposition party, the RDA-PDCI. His presidency (1995–1999) generated the ethno-regional tensions that lead to the 2002–2011 civil war. While Bédié enabled Alassane Ouattara’s ascent to the presidency in 2011 and 2015 through an unlikely political coalition, he abandoned the alliance in the build-up to the 2020 elections due to disagreements regarding the appointment of a joint candidate. Bédié has now approached another former rival, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, to reject Ouattara’s third-term bid. Together, the two preside over a large opposition movement that could do serious harm to Ouattara’s re-election campaign. Over the last months, Bédié and N’Guessan have called for widespread civil resistance against the regime, and on 15 October, they jointly called upon their supporters to boycott the elections.  

In the eye of the storm stands 78-year old President Alassane Ouattara. Indications in early 2020 suggested that he would pave the way for his prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, to succeed him as the RHDP’s presidential candidate. However, after Coulibaly’s untimely death in June, Ouattara is making a third-term bid that the opposition claims is unconstitutional. Since then, the Constitutional Council has confirmed Ouattara’s candidacy, all the while deeming 40 out of 44 candidates ineligible. Moreover, the incumbent has used both the Independent Electoral Commission, security forces, and judiciary to harass, arrest, and intimidate the opposition.

To further complicate matters, former rebel leader turned politician, Guillaume Soro, has mounted his own political movement – Générations et peuples solidaires (GPS) – to challenge the incumbent. Soro has also been sentenced to imprisonment in absentia; had his candidacy rejected by the Constitutional Council, and remains in exile in France. Nevertheless, it is believed that Soro maintains a strong support base in northern Côte d’Ivoire and among former rebels integrated into the armed forces.

Is Alassane Ouattara becoming a political dinosaur?

As Election Day approaches, tensions are rising. An increasingly united opposition is calling for an annulment of Ouattara’s candidacy, the postponement of the elections, and a new and transparent process to reconstitute the Independent Electoral Commission, which is currently accused of being biased in favour of the incumbent. Ouattara has undeniably taken advantage of the 2016 constitutional amendments and the composition of the legislature to forward his own candidacy. Several factors may account for the incumbent’s comeback as the front-runner. First, while Ouattara may have intended to step back, Coulibaly’s death provided an unexpected opportunity to cling to power. Second, other RHDP bigwigs have strong incentives to keep Ouattara in power, as control of the presidency brings massive benefits to party members, especially within cocoa regulation bodies. Given Ouattara’s popularity among RHDP voters, the incumbent represents the most straightforward route to continued control of the state. Third, given the mounting animosity against him from many of his former allies, most notably Soro and Bédié, and the acquittal of his archenemies, Laurent Gbagbo and his right-hand man, Charles Blé Goudé, Ouattara may be reluctant to relinquish his control of the state apparatus out of fear that his opponents might use it against him.

Scenarios for the outcome and its aftermath

With worrying parallels to the disastrous 2010-11 election, the political rhetoric in Côte d’Ivoire is aggressive, and opposition leaders have called for a boycott of the vote, encouraged civil disobedience, and threatened that the elections will not take place. With a free and fair election increasingly unlikely, fears of an escalation of electoral violence are growing. The election and its aftermath may include an escalation of electoral violence, the entrenchment of Ouattara’s rule in semi-authoritarian ways, widespread street protests, and in the worst instance, a return to armed conflict.

In our view, the most peaceful scenario would be through a clear incumbent victory in the first round, which would close the potential for further contestation and likely push the country towards less political freedom. If Ouattara’s opponents stay in the race, and a sufficient number of opposition supporters actually vote, however, this scenario seems unlikely given the Ivorian electorate’s composition, with the three main contenders likely to claim a considerable vote share. A clear victory in the second round would depend on the ability of the two remaining candidates to form a winning coalition. Such alliances are common in Ivorian politics, and at present, the most probable coalition would be between Bédié and N’Guessan.

Even if the opposition joins forces against the incumbent, it is more likely that the elections will be determined by a close race in the second round. A hotly contested election in combination with serious questions about electoral integrity leaves the door open for post-electoral contestation by the losing side, which may either mobilise civilian supporters to the streets, as in 2000 and 2010–2011, or result in a militarisation of political rivalries, as it happened in 2010–2011. The scale and effects of such mobilisation will depend on three interrelated factors. First, the extent to which factions within the armed forces, who have mounted more than 50 uprisings during Ouattara’s presidency, are willing to engage; second, the extent to which localised, low-intensity land conflicts become further politicised by either side; and third, whether the main political actors resort to ethno-nationalist rhetoric and broad social mobilisation.

Despite signs that Côte d’Ivoire is moving towards greater authoritarianism and political violence, it should be noted that both civilian and armed actors have shown considerable restraint in the past. Thus, while political positions may seem deadlocked at the moment, international and regional actors should continue to push for dialogue between all involved actors before, during, and after Election Day.

Jesper Bjarnesen is a senior research at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala.

Sebastian van Baalen is a PhD candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.

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