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- On 6 August, President Alassane Ouattara officially announced that he will seek a third term by becoming the candidate of his Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) in the upcoming presidential election.
- The controversial decision, which was increasingly anticipated, provides a rallying cry for the fractured opposition and sets the stage for a high-stakes first election round scheduled for 31 October.
- Tensions could further accelerate in the event of a run-off vote, which the RHDP will aim to avoid at all cost.
- While there is a high risk of civil unrest in the context of the vote, the prospects of an escalation of tensions similar to the civil war episode following the 2010/11 polls still appear limited.
As discussed earlier, Ouattara’s decision is problematic for a variety of reasons, and main opposition candidate and former president (1993-1999) Henri Konan Bedie of the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) wasted no time in calling Ouattara’s decision to run “illegal”. Ouattara, elected in 2010 and 2015, currently serves his second term, and the 2016 constitution retained the pre-existing two-term limit. While the opposition might decide to challenge the legality of Ouattara’s decision before the supreme court, the latter is dominated by judges deemed loyal to Ouattara who are likely to back the president’s rationale that the new constitution has reset the clock. Nevertheless, Bedie (86) would be unlikely to subsequently boycott the election as it is arguably his last shot at becoming president once more.
However, the opposition will face an uphill battle against Ouattara. Bedie would need to mobilize the support of his erstwhile enemy, former president Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2010), and former national assembly leader Guillaume Soro, who is popular among the country’s youth and could challenge the RHDP’s dominance across the northern half of the country. Yet it remains questionable how much clout either of them still has from abroad as they both remain exiled. The only other opposition candidate likely to survive the new ‘parrainage’ system – would-be candidates need to present signatures of 1% of registered voters in 17 of Cote d’Ivoire’s 31 regions by 31 August – is Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who leads a rival faction within Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). However, he appears unlikely to rally his troops alongside Bedie’s, suggesting the opposition camp will remain split.
Meanwhile, all indications are that the RHDP will try to follow the model of Senegal’s Macky Sall and aim to get across the 50% bar in the first round, to avoid a potentially dangerous run-off vote between the first- and second-placed candidates at all cost. However, this would be near-impossible to achieve if there was a level playing field. Cote d’Ivoire’s political structure is still essentially determined by a three-party system in which no single party can dominate. Note that in 2010, then-opposition candidate Ouattara merely scored 32% in the first round, only defeating Gbagbo with Bedie’s support in the second round. In 2015, Ouattara’s landslide first-round re-election (84%) was made possible by the electoral alliance with the PDCI, while the FPI boycotted the polls.
The tactics the ruling party will likely employ, including vote rigging and the strategic use of violence around election day, will further antagonize both camps. Against this background, violent clashes between rivalling supporters as well as between armed security forces and protesters are probable. Nevertheless, the prospects for a worst-case scenario, i.e. a return to civil war in the context of a disputed poll, remain low. In fact, the strategic context has profoundly changed since the post-electoral crisis of 2010/11, when the country descended into a brief period of civil war during which some 3,000 people were killed. Back then, the north of the country was effectively controlled by a rebel army, while a large UN mission (backed by France) was present as well, ultimately forcing Gbagbo out of office.
As of 2020, the balance of power has profoundly shifted towards the ruling party, implying that the chances to succeed via an armed rebellion are considerably lower. Whether the tensions already apparent have the potential to escalate into a full-blown crisis comparable in scale to 2010/11 will largely depend on how the ruling party manages the electoral process. While the population appears tired of another violent escalation, there is a tangible feeling of frustration among large parts of the electorate that feel excluded from economic opportunities, despite impressive economic headline figures. Of late, this has been reinforced due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. That frustration could still erupt if the electoral outcome is perceived as completely out of touch with reality.