What the 2015 Presidential Election Means for the Future of Cote d’Ivoire

The recent peaceful presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire shows the progress the country has made since the violent protests of 2010, but also underscores the challenges still facing the country.  President Ouattara must now take the next step and begin the reconciliation process that will make Côte d’Ivoire into a democratic model.

Five years after violence erupted over the disputed 2010 presidential election between the then-President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and longtime opposition leader, the citizens of Côte d’Ivoire voted peacefully on October 25, 2015. The October election was the country’s first presidential election since 2010, when more than three thousand people were killed and hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced.

The aftermath of the 2010 contest was chaotic: Gbagbo and Ouattara both claimed victory and civil society organizations fueled the post-election turmoil by releasing conflicting reports on the outcome and vote totals. Despite certification from the head of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) and from the United Nations that Alassane Ouattara won the election, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down as president. This refusal sparked a conflict between elements of the army loyal to Gbagbo and the armed militia supporters of Ouattara. The dispute quickly erupted into a full-blown five-month crisis that ended with the arrest of President Gbagbo by pro-Ouattara forces (supported by the French military) and Ouattara’s subsequent presidential inauguration. However, Côte d’Ivoire remained deeply divided with ethnic and north-south tensions in the country nearing a boiling point.

In 2011, with the backing of the French military and the United Nations, President Ouattara took the reins of a fractured country wracked by years of intermittent civil war and electoral violence. In spite of isolated incidents of civil and political violence during his first five years in office, President Ouattara oversaw an economic boom characterized as the “Ivorian Miracle” and helped the country recover economically from years of civil war. The country’s gross domestic product grew at a rate between 8 and 10 percent during the first five years of his presidency, according to the International Monetary Fund.

It was not surprising that President Ouattara scored an emphatic victory on election day in October 2015. The consistently large economic growth over his first term, combined with the public’s general contentment and the backing he received from his former rival, Henri Konan Bédié, former president and current head of the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI), ensured President Ouattara a strong position as he headed into the election. Furthermore, Ouattara benefited from facing a fractured opposition that was split on how to proceed against him. In the end, some of the opposition candidates, likely sensing that they were headed to near-certain defeat, urged their supporters to boycott the presidential election just days before voters headed to the polls.

The election results released by the CEI showed that Ouattara won the reelection with 83.66 percent of the vote and the runner-up, Affi N’Guessan, won 9.29 percent of the vote. Independent monitoring groups certified CEI’s results and declared that Ivoirians were generally able to vote freely and fairly. In a moment that exemplifies the progress that Côte d’Ivoire has made as a whole since 2010, Mr. N’Guessan conceded defeat and did not challenge the legitimacy of the vote totals, ensuring a peaceful post-election period. Several other opposition candidates also acknowledged President Ouattara’s victory and representatives from many foreign countries attended Ouattara’s inauguration. This peaceful reelection is a major step.

However, the fact that nearly half of the population abstained from going to the polls clearly demonstrates that the government must continue its efforts to reconcile and unite the divided country. Many of the 47 percent of voters who abstained from voting are supporters of the former President Gbagbo and view President Ouattara as illegitimate, because President Ouattara does not fulfill the Ivoirité clause stated in the constitution This clause requires both parents of a presidential candidate to be born within Côte d’Ivoire, and originated from former President Bédié’s essentially invented concept of “Ivoirité” in 1995 as a means of disqualifying political rivals. This clause is one of the most xenophobic elements of Ivoirian politics and is often used by politicians from areas in the South and East of the country to classify politicians from the northern part of the country, where Ouattara hails from, as not true Ivoirians. Ouattara was granted an exception from the Ivoirité clause ahead of the 2010 election by the former President Gbagbo, and his emphatic re-election victory will likely give him the political capital necessary to amend the constitution and remove the xenophobic Ivoirité clause: a top second-term priority. However, President Ouattara will need to tread carefully on the issue lest he risks reigniting sectarian and ethnic tensions. Any attempt by his administration to steamroll a constitutional amendment through the General Assembly would likely inflame lingering tensions in the country.

Nonetheless, Côte d’Ivoire has the potential to become the most influential country in francophone West Africa. It is already the largest economy out of the 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the country’s political and economic developments impact countries throughout the region. Moreover, the peaceful 2015 presidential election gives hope that Côte d’Ivoire can now begin to address the other major problems facing the country, such as the endemic levels of corruption that continues to impede economic growth. President Ouattara must also use his victory to reenergize the political dialogue between his government and the pro-Gbagbo opposition, which was only a sporadic political interest during his first term. Reconciliation dialogue should address issues facing the country such as, reforming the security sector, disarmament, demobilization of militias, the rule of law, and especially for those accused of crimes during the 2010 post-election violence. Through the engagement of the opposition in a reconciliation dialogue, President Ouattara can help heal the wounds caused by the 2010 electoral crisis and provide a model to the region’s fledgling democracies on how to begin the process of national reconciliation.

Benjamin Staton is a project assistant for the National Democratic Institute’s Central & West Africa team, supporting programs in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. He has a B.A. in History from the George Washington University. The views expressed belong to the author alone, and do not represent the views of NDI.

Image credit: CSIS/Flickr.

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