On 15 October, the first official day of the campaign, the main opposition candidates Henri Konan Bedie and Pascal Affi N’Guessan jointly announced their boycott of the 31 October presidential election and exhorted their supporters to ignore the vote. This anticlimactic development leaves the field open for President Alassane Ouattara, whose last remaining opponent Kouadio Konan Bertin polled merely 3.9% in the 2015 election. However, while the risk of large-scale violence erupting around election day seems limited, Ouattara will carry over the political polarization into his likely next term, which would be fraught with a weak mandate.
Bedie and N’Guessan based their decision on the well-known argument that key electoral bodies such as the electoral commission were tilted in favor of the government, while Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term itself was illegal. However, as discussed earlier, while the opposition certainly has a point on both accounts, the last-minute election boycott may also be interpreted as a scapegoat strategy to disguise the opposition’s failure to unite behind a single candidate. Both party leaders called upon their supporters to boycott the vote “with all legal means”. Since Bedie’s earlier call for a ‘civil disobedience’ campaign failed to get any traction, and the situation has remained calm since late August, today’s call for a peaceful boycott suggests the potential for violence to erupt in the context of the poll will be fairly limited.
While Ouattara’s re-election under these circumstances is a foregone conclusion, the boycott does not bode well for long-term political stability. As analyzed previously, Ouattara’s own party is highly divided, as became apparent in the aftermath of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly’s sudden death in July, which triggered Ouattara’s forced comeback. Ouattara will need to tread carefully when planning his succession for good, and it remains to be seen how he will reconcile the camps of Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko and the party’s executive secretary Adama Bictogo.
Fears that his own party may disintegrate will also inform how Ouattara will go about engaging with the opposition and any attempts to defuse the polarized environment his third term candidacy has created. In fact, reconciliation following the 2010/11 electoral crisis has never been attempted in earnest. Ten years later, the political class remains deeply divided and evidently unable to reconcile. It would require a sharp reversal of course by all protagonists following the vote in order to solve this underlying problem and latent source of instability.