The 2020 Presidential Elections in Côte d’Ivoire

A Game of Musical Chairs
Analysis12.08.2019Jo Holden
Abidjan
Abidjan, economic capital of Côte d‘Ivoire. In the 1970s, it used to be known as “the Paris of West Africa”. Since the end of the civil war in 2011, it has re-emerged as a West African boomtown. Photo: https://wallpaper-gallery.net/single/cote-divoire-5.html

In recent years, Côte d’Ivoire’s positive macroeconomic development has featured strongly in the selective reporting on the African continent. The country has been called a “role model”, and its economic indicators have indeed been reliably positive since 2011. Since the end of the civil war about eight years ago, and after some false starts at the outset, the country’s economy has been booming, consistently hitting annual growth rates of 7-10 percent since 2014 and catapulting Côte d’Ivoire to join the front-runners among Africa’s fastest-growing economies. The nation’s income from traditional exports such as cocoa, palm oil and rubber has been supplemented by revenue from oil and gas extraction since 2005; local manufacturing, which contributes only 25 percent to GDP, but is comparatively diversified in the regional context, has also expanded its output in recent years. The Abidjan metropolitan area is awash with new building projects. The economic boom is clearly visible. 

These developments are helping the country regain the macro-economic stature it used to enjoy in the 1970s. At the time, Côte d’Ivoire was West Africa’s wealthiest nation, thanks to export earnings from its tropical agricultural wealth, its relatively open economy and the orientation of its foreign policy towards France, the former colonial power. 

 

Félix Houphouët-Boigny
The “wise man of Côte d’Ivoire“, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. His political legacy remains controversial Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

The economic recovery of recent years has been supported by a process of political consolidation. In October 2015, President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected at the head of his liberal-conservative political alliance, the RHDP (Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix), with an overwhelming 83.7 percent share of the vote. This event seemed to herald a new political stability, welcomed by local and foreign investors alike. The constitutional referendum in October 2016, which proposed a two-term limit for the president, pointed in the same direction. The proposal passed with 93.4 percent support, although participation was relatively low, at only 42 percent.

Mr Ouattara’s mandate is coming to an end in the autumn of 2020. Not surprisingly, the political environment is becoming increasingly volatile as the date of the presidential elections comes closer. The supposed political stability is beginning to fracture: old alliances are disintegrating, new ones are forming, and speculation is rife. 

A new party baked according to an old recipe 

Since mid-2018, the 77-year-old president has been intent on leading his own party, the liberal RDR (Rassemblement des Républicains), into the presidential elections at the head of a comprehensive grand coalition party. This model is not new to Côte d’Ivoire. It clearly aligns itself with the political conceptions of the first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled the country from when it gained independence from France in 1960 as the leader of a unity party, the PDCI (Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire). The party included most ethnicities as well as liberal, conservative and social-democratic movements (but not the extreme left). By deftly parcelling out political offices and patronage without unduly favouring any one group, he managed to create political stability that lasted for decades. 

 

Opposition CI
The new party under Alassane Ouattara (right) sees itself as the rightful heir of the father of the nation, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (left). RHDP media outlets take care to highlight the similaritiesFriedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Mr Houphouët-Boigny, who died in office in 1993, continues to be seen by many Ivorian politicians as the infallible father of the nation. His stature is such that he is considered the “wise man of Côte d’Ivoire” even beyond the country’s borders. Not surprisingly, almost all politicians strive to claim part of his legacy for themselves. 

Based on this model of a maximum, comprehensive alliance, Mr Ouattara’s intention was to convert the loose RHDP electoral alliance into a proper party. The political reasoning was simple: the ethnic and political spectrum it encompassed would be so broad that it make it almost impossible for any opposition to compete against it. At the same time, party discipline would help prevent potential internal dissidents from stepping out of line; in the previous, loose alliance, this had not been possible. Last, but not least, his own RDR grouping would have continued to be a dominant influence within the new RHDP. 

 

Henri Konan Bedie
The former president, Henri Konan Bedie, left the RHDP alliance with his PDCI-RDA party in 2018. He is positioning himself as the alternative to the RHDP, but for this he needs allies. (Sign at the entrance to the PDCI party headquarters in Abidjan.Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

The new RHDP party, founded in July 2018, suffered its first setback when the conservative coalition partner PDCI-RDA (Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire – Rassemblement démocratique africain) under its leader, former state president Henri Konan Bedie, exited the alliance. Mr Bedie was painfully aware of the dominance of Mr Ouattara’s group in the new party and therefore decided to rather go his own way with his supporters. This effectively made impossible the grand liberal-conservative alliance which RHDP was meant to be. Instead, it created the impression of two polarised camps, one dominated by the conservative PDCI and the other by the liberal RHDP. 

Mr Bedie also sees himself in the tradition of Mr Houphouët-Boigny. But he needs allies to be able to compete with the new RHDP. Currently, he is courting the former rebel leader and former president of the National Assembly, Guillaume Soro. At 46 years, Mr Soro is one of the younger Ivorian politicians. Originally appointed by President Ouattara, he took pains to maintains his party’s independence. What’s more, he can rely on his loyal follower, particularly among the inland youth. As a former rebel leader, he is said to have access to networks that are ready to use violence to create unrest if politically required. Should he decide to throw in his lot with Mr Bedie, he will only do so if certain conditions and requirements are met. Here, too, speculation abounds. 

The Gbagbo case 

The acquittal of former President Laurent Gbagbo, who was standing trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity, lent an additional twist to Ivorian politics, just 18 months before the presidential elections. Like many other observers, the government in Abidjan had clearly not expected the acquittal and was caught unprepared. Mr Gbagbo is keeping a low profile and is awaiting the outcome of the appeal proceedings in exile in Belgium. Even afterwards, however, an immediate return to Côte d‘Ivoire is probably not on the cards as there is still a warrant out for his arrest, about which he will first have to negotiate with the government. 

Not unexpectedly, he has already been getting involved in the country’s politics from a distance. His first goal was to reunite his own party, the socialist FPI (Front Populaire Ivoirien). This has been split into two factions for years. Owing to a partial boycott, it only managed to get 1 percent of the vote at the October 2018 local government elections, continuing its descent into political irrelevance. Mr Gbagbo is now trying to unite the FPI remotely. Apart from consolidating the FPI, his political ambitions are aimed not so much at the presidency as at becoming a swing factor in the race between the two large parties. This is something he might be able to do from a distance. It seems unlikely that he’ll play the role of kingmaker on the side of his former opponent, Mr Ouattara. The gulf between the two appears too deep. After the civil war, Mr Ouattara announced a dialogue and reconciliation initiative with the FPI, but this never really gained traction. The lack of prosecutions on both sides, as well as the FPI’s accusations of “victor’s justice” against the government, continue to mark the relationship. 

Will the old presidential candidates be the new ones?

Mr Ouattara’s new party, the RHDP, held its first party congress in January 2019, marking the start of the process of merging the five parties making up the coalition. These parties now have to restructure themselves. 

The RHDP views itself as a liberal party. Its statutes express a clear commitment to free markets, human rights, the rule of law and democracy. By early 2020, the party should be sufficiently consolidated to take on the role of political “warhorse” under a yet-to-be-decided presidential candidate. 

A new candidature of President Ouattara keeps being mooted, but the prospects seem doubtful. Last year, Mr Ouattara himself dropped several hints indicating that he believed it was time to let others take over. Also, a renewed candidature would raise constitutional concerns. But in light of the growing strength of the opposition, the possibility that the new party will urge the 77-year-old to enter the race once more cannot be dismissed. Currently, he is the only person with the necessary authority to lead the RHDP and maintain its cohesion. However, there are still another 15 months to go to the elections, and it is possible that a new candidate will appear by then. A decision is only expected by mid-2020. There are indications that the current prime minister, 59-year-old Amadou Gon Coulibaly, may be warming up for the post. 

Rally in Abidjan
Public rally at the first congress of the newly founded RHDP on 26 January 2019 in Abidjan.Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

A similar picture is emerging in the opposition, which is assembling under the banner of the conservative PDCI, led by Henri Konan Bedie. Here, too, it is unclear whether the party will enter the presidential campaign with the 84-year-old former president at the helm or whether a different candidate will be found. But whoever it turns out to be, he (or she) is going to need allies to form a majority. This is where the question of a kingmaker gains renewed relevance. 

If certain conditions are met, negotiations between Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo should be possible, even though the thought of Mr Gbagbo’s radical socialists coming to an arrangement with Mr Bedie’s conservative PDCI takes some getting used to. However, initial contact has been made: the general secretaries of the two parties are planning a PR tour through the interior of the country in September 2019. In Côte d‘Ivoire, the classical divisions between conservatives, liberals and socialists are not as hard as one might think. Ivorian politicians have always been flexible when it came to interpreting their party programmes. Next year’s elections won’t change this.

A country governed by old men 

No matter who the presidential candidates turn out to be, and despite all the political twists and turns, the protagonists remain the same as ten years ago. The provisional release of the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, has reincarnated the old troika of candidates and presidents: Messrs Bedie, Ouattara and Gbagbo. 

Considering that 62 percent of Côte d‘Ivoire’s population is below 24 years of age, it seems almost grotesque to see the country’s fate in the hands of a “troika of elders”, among whom 73-year-old Mr Gbago is the youngest. But this corresponds to the traditional deference to age that marks many African societies. Côte d‘Ivoire is no exception. Still, it is to be hoped that this mentality will slowly change under the influence of the politically active youth and through the use of social media. 

The fixation on the old familiar faces will also leave its mark on the nomination of the presidential candidates. Whether they decide to run themselves or end up sending younger candidates into the race makes little difference. In either case, they will continue to pull the strings in their loyal party apparatuses. Messrs Gbagbo, Bedie and Ouattara will continue to dominate political developments, just like they have long dominated their parties, thanks to the political authority they have accumulated over a number of years. Maybe the old candidates won’t be the new candidates, but they continue to represent the core power base for any political events in the run-up to the elections in autumn 2020.

For Côte d‘Ivoire, hopefully wisdom and tolerance will come with age, as was said to have been the case with Mr Houphouët-Boigny. It is worth noting that exactly the same troika ran for the office of president in 2010, at the end of which the civil war re-erupted. Should the elections next year not be peaceful, and if the various political splinter group manage to provoke unrest, rebellions and escalating violence, the authority of the old men may be the only thing standing in the way of a repeat of the events of 2011. But if envy and a desire for revenge prevail over wisdom and tolerance, the opposite could happen. This would be the worst of all scenarios, because then Côte d‘Ivoire will not be given another chance in the foreseeable future. 

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Jo Holden

FNF West Africa Director

Jo Holden is the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s director for West Africa. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.