Specter of 2010 Hangs Over Côte d’Ivoire Polls

Observers will be on high alert as Côte d’Ivoire holds presidential elections on October 25—the first since the 2010 polls that sparked a protracted and deadly political conflict. A key point of contention has been the prosecution of former president Laurent Gbagbo, members of his family, and key personalities within the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party for that violence, which killed more than 1,000 people and displaced up to a million more.

Gbagbo, who is currently awaiting trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, refused to relinquish the presidency after losing the 2010 ballot, but was eventually replaced by Allassane Ouattara, who is widely expected to win a second term.

The issues are far from settled, however, and FPI activists have claimed that punitive measures not only absolved Ouattara and his Rally for Republicans (RDR) party from their roles in the violence, but have been formulated to weaken the FPI’s political competitiveness. The FPI will go into this month’s election as a divided political movement, with so-called hardliners in the organization boycotting the vote, while others will back former prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan’s candidacy.

N’Guessan is poised to be Ouattara’s main challenger, but the election is far from a two-horse race. Shifts within the country’s political establishment since 2010 have led to the formation of a powerful opposition movement known as the National Coalition for Change (CNC). The coalition comprises former FPI members, dissidents from the ruling party, and a number of smaller opposition parties. It is led by the former prime minister Charles Konan Banny, who is set to contest the presidency on its behalf.

But Banny and other presidential candidates have also claimed they may boycott the vote. They have called for various reforms ahead of the election, several of which are specific to the composition and conduct of the Ivorian Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). The CEI is alleged to lack the expertise and independence to organize a free, fair, and transparent ballot and opposition members have called for a restructuring—and some even for the disbanding—of the body.

With calls for this and other electoral reforms generally ignored, only a few candidates, including Ouatarra, have to date signed the CEI’s code of good conduct—a document which urges Côte d’Ivoire electoral candidates to renounce violence and fraud both before and after the election.

If voting does indeed go ahead in Côte d’Ivoire as planned, a victory for the incumbent is widely anticipated. Despite his detractors, Ouattara has rejuvenated the Ivorian economy, which was battered by the 2010 post-election crisis. Current economic forecasts suggest the country could achieve 10% growth in 2015; a feat which could be repeated again in 2016 in an economic climate where other African economies have been left reeling from slumps in commodity prices, capital outflows, and plummeting currencies.

Côte d’Ivoire’s economic prosperity under Ouattara’s watch is expected to translate into significant support at the polls. Moreover, Ouattara’s control of the state apparatus, and the benefits such control can derive, will give him a further advantage over an indecisive and divided opposition.

Although the likelihood for an Ouattara re-election should prevent a repeat of the 2010-11 violence, voting in Côte d’Ivoire is still fraught with risk. The lead-up to the ballot has already seen significant anti-government agitation by the CNC and FPI, which could intensify during and in the aftermath of the elections.

The risk of politically motivated unrest will be particularly high if opposition candidates make true on their promise of boycotting the polls and/or if the electoral process is deemed to be irregular. Both of these outcomes would raise questions concerning the legitimacy of the election and the eventual government conceived from it.

There are also concerns that hardliners of the FPI, particularly within the party’s Young Patriots youth wing, could seek to disrupt the process through acts of violence and intimidation. Following the 2010 crisis, many FPI-aligned militiamen fled major urban areas to the country’s western Dix-Huit Montagnes, Moyen-Cavally, and Bas-Sassandra regions, where they have been targeting communities perceived as being aligned to the Ouattara regime.

In the commercial capital of Abidjan, the areas of Yopougon, Abobo Adjamé, and Attécoubé remain FPI strongholds and may serve as flashpoints for election-related violence. A third catalyst for post-election instability would undoubtedly be an unexpected electoral loss for Ouattara in either a first round or run-off election, particularly in a climate of alleged electoral malfeasance. In light of the concerns, an estimated 34,000 troops, including 6,000 United Nations peacekeepers, will be deployed to ensure that voting concludes peacefully.