Election Preview: Côte d’Ivoire 2010

Key presidential elections will be held in Côte d’Ivoire on Sunday, October 31; more than ten years after the last presidential election in October 2000 and after only eight postponements. After a five-year civil war between 2002 and 2007 and a 2008 peace deal, these elections are considered key for the fragile country’s future.

Once the success story of West Africa and the gem of French West-Africa, Côte d’Ivoire declined into chaos starting in the late 1980s. Prior to that, the country had been kept prosperous and stable under the leadership of the old authoritarian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Houphouët-Boigny, scion of a well-off Baoulé family of coffee and cacao planters, became President following independence from France in 1960 and ruled until his death in 1993. Until 1990, the country was a single-party state ruled by Houphouët-Boigny’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI-RDA), a party which which was based in the Baoulé rural aristocracy of planters and the growing urban bourgeoisie; and the government led an eclectic economic policy based around agricultural exports (largely cacao and coffee) which until the 1980s led the country to become one of the continent’s most prosperous countries. However, dependence on agriculture led to a slow decline in the country’s wealth as cocoa prices decline in the late 80s; something which resulted in increased political and ethnic strife and finally to an opening towards democracy in 1990. Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993 and was replaced by a fellow Baoulé, Henri Konan Bédié. A corrupt and incompetent leader, Bédié’s policies led directly to the outbreak of civil war in 2002. His government became increasingly nationalistic, playing on the concept of Ivoirité, a concept which was soon corrupted into a nativist and xenophobic Baoulé nationalist concept. He was overthrown in a coup led by General Robert Guéï in 1999, who himself was defeated in the 2000 election by Laurent Gbagbo, an old left-leaning opponent of Houphouët-Boigny. In September 2002, the north of the country revolted and caused a civil war, which ended in 2007-2008 with a 2008 peace deal between Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who became his Prime Minister in a power-sharing deal.

Ethnicity and immigration have played a major role in recent Ivorian politics, especially since Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993. He had previously kept a lid on nationalistic rhetoric and ethnic conflict, and in fact he encouraged immigration from Burkina Faso and led a liberal policy which quickly granted the Ivorian nationality to Burkinabé immigrants in return for support for the PDCI. In addition to the conflicts caused by immigration – around 30% of the Ivorian population are immigrants of some kind – there are also important internal ethnic conflicts. Firstly, there exists an important divide between north and south. The north, largely Muslim, is covered by savanna and whose economy relies upon herding, cotton and other low-income crops, is much less developed than the south. The south, largely Christian, is covered by forests and its economy based around coffee and cacao have made it the centre of Ivorian economic and political life. Within the south, there exists another important divide between the Baoulé, a subgroup of the Akan linguistic family; and the Bété, a subgroup of the Kru family. Based in the southeast of the country, the Baoulé are the coffee and cacao planter elite and the political elite behind the Houphouët-Boigny regime and the PDCI. From their heart around the capital (and birthplace of Houphouët-Boigny) of Yamassoukro, they have expanded into the pioneer regions of the southwest to plant coffee and cacao. Here, they encountered the Bété, whose identity was carved around a feeling of exploitation by the Baoulé elite who came on their traditional lands as semi-colonialists. The Bété form the core base around Laurent Gbagbo and his party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).

Other ethnic groups of importance include the Gio/Dan people in the west, a group which was the core group backing Robert Guéï in 2000; the largely Muslim Malinké, Dioula and Sénoufos groups of the north, groups which backed the rebels in the civil war and whose main leaders include Guillaume Soro and Alassane Ouattara, a former Prime Minister pushed aside by Bédié in 1993.

In 2000, in a sham election marked by 63% abstention and boycotts by both Ouattara and Bédié, Laurent Gbagbo defeated Robert Guéï with around 60% of the votes against 33% for Guéï. Outarra had been excluded because of a new constitution passed in 2000 which excluded foreign-born citizens (like Ouattara, technically born in Burkina Faso) from the presidency. Although low turnout and boycotts by the Muslim north and the Baoulé hide a lot of things, the electoral map showed a stark divide between the north which largely supported Guéï and the south which largely backed Gbagbo. A clear harbinger of things to come in 2002.

This year, there is a fascinating contest between the three main players in Ivorian politics since the late 80s. On one hand, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo backed by the Bété; while on the other you have Henri Konan Bédié of the PDCI backed by the Baoulé and Alassane Ouattara of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR, an old splinter of the PDCI) backed by the Muslim north. Guillaume Soro, under the 2008 peace deals, cannot run and his New Forces have not officially backed anybody though a lot back fellow northerner Alassane Ouattara but many think that Gbagbo have worked out a secret deal whereby Soro backs Gbagbo this year, in return for Gbagbo’s backing for a potential Soro candidacy in 2015.

Laurent Gbagbo and his party are probably the first round favourites, but if he does not win outright by Sunday, a runoff will be held, a runoff in which the two other candidates have already announced that they would back each other and form a kind of united opposition front. It is not known which of Bédié and Ouattara will come out on top of the divided opposition, but Ouattara is the best candidate out of the two given that he is more likely to do well in his non-native region (the south) than Bédié would do in his non-native region (the north) given his past nationalist saber-rattling. It will be interesting to see a breakdown of the results by region and department.

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Posted on October 30, 2010, in Côte d'Ivoire, Election Preview. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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