What is most interesting about the most recent election, on Oct. 25, was that it was not terribly interesting. Candidates representing all of the major parties participated; the candidate who was expected to win (President Alassane Ouattara) won the election; only one candidate was inaugurated president; and no civil war broke out. Although some opponents protested various irregularities, one can imagine that the majority of the country is relieved to have such an uneventful election. Last month was therefore an important step forward in Côte d’Ivoire’s democratic consolidation, even if important challenges remain ahead.
Early, uninteresting Ivorian elections
For the first 30 years of Côte d’Ivoire’s independence, presidential elections were not very interesting at all. Every five years from 1960 to 1985, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, candidate of the country’s only party, the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire — Rassemblement Démocratique Africain, (PDCI-RDA or Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire – African Democratic Rally), won reelection with somewhere between 99.9 and 100 percent of the vote.
For most of that time, the president had broad support. Houphouët-Boigny was the father of independence and his policies led to 20 years of relative economic prosperity, called by many “the Ivorian miracle.” By the 1980s, however, the economy was in crisis and the government was deeply in debt.
The 1990s in Côte d’Ivoire: protests and a coup
Presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire first became interesting in 1990. In March 1990, the government unveiled new austerity measures that led to widespread popular protests. Houphouët-Boigny responded by lifting the ban on opposition parties in May, and setting elections for October, leaving the opposition with little time to organize. Houphouët-Boigny won a seventh term, with 82 percent of the vote; the main opposition candidate, Laurent Gbagbo of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI or Ivorian Popular Front), won a mere 18 percent. After the election, the ailing octogenarian president appointed a technocrat to be prime minister: Alassane Ouattara.
In 1993, presidential politics took another dramatic turn when President Houphouët-Boigny died and president of the National Assembly Henri Konan Bédié became president of the country.
Ouattara resigned his post as prime minister, left the country to work for the IMF, and joined a new party, the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR or Rally of the Republicans), with the intention of contesting the 1995 presidential election.
Bédié blocked Ouattara from running by introducing an ultranationalist policy known as Ivoirité in a new electoral code, requiring presidential candidates to be born of native-born Ivorians. Ouattara was generally believed to have at least one parent from what is today Burkina Faso. With Ouattara excluded and Gbagbo boycotting, Bédié won the 1995 election with 96 percent of the vote.
Then events became really interesting. In the run-up to the 2000 election, the country experienced its first military coup in 1999. A new constitution was adopted in 2000 that enshrined and expanded upon the exclusionary requirements of the electoral code, such that 12 of 17 candidates for president were disqualified, including those of two of the three major parties, leaving Gbagbo as the only candidate of a major party to challenge the military leader, Robert Guéï.
The 2000s in Côte d’Ivoire: Elections and exclusion spark civil wars
Guéï declared himself the winner of the 2000 election, prompting three days of protest. Guéï fled the capital and Gbagbo was declared the winner.
Once in office, Gbagbo’s government extended Ivoirité to new policy areas. Northerners were denied nationality certificates if they did not have documents proving their parents were Ivorian. More importantly, there were reports of a planned Ivoirité purge of northerners in the military – leading to an outbreak of war in 2002. During peace talks, the FPI-led National Assembly passed a law to loosen the candidacy restrictions in preparation for the 2005 election, but the war continued and the election was never held.
Finally the war ended, and in 2010, after Gbagbo commissioned some polls that indicated he would win, the presidential election was held with Gbagbo, Ouattara, and Bédié all on the ballot.
After no one won a majority in the first round, Gbagbo and Ouattara faced off in the second round. The independent electoral commission declared Ouattara the winner, but the constitutional court (whose members are appointed by the president) declared Gbagbo the winner. Both men were sworn in as president in competing ceremonies (Gbagbo in the presidential palace and Ouattara in the Abidjan Golf Hotel), and a second civil war broke out for several months, leading to over 3,000 deaths. Finally troops loyal to Ouattara, with support from the French and U.N. peacekeeping troops, were able to arrest Gbagbo in a bunker below his house and turn him over to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
A relative calm for the 2015 election
Since then, presidential politics finally became less interesting. Ouattara’s 2010 electoral victory was recognized by the constitutional court and he was inaugurated in the political capital Yamoussoukro in 2011.
Côte d’Ivoire has experienced what some call a second economic miracle, with three consecutive years of 9 percent annual growth. A multiparty coalition including the PDCI (still led by Bédié) and the RDR endorsed Ouattara’s bid for reelection.
In a 2014 Afrobarometer poll, over 60 percent of respondents who indicated preference for the presidential election supported a party in Ouattara’s coalition. The poll accurately predicted Ouattara’s victory, but underestimated his margin. The official tally was 83.7 percent for the incumbent, and 9.3 percent for his top challenger, Affi N’Guessan Pascal (FPI).
The Afrobarometer poll, in which one-third of respondents did not name a party they supported, foreshadowed another outcome of the election: relatively low turnout. Whereas the first multiparty election in 1990 had high turnout (over 3 million voters, almost 70 percent of registered voters), the 1995 and 2000 elections were largely boycotted (under 2 million voters, under 40 percent of registered voters). In 2010, with all three parties fielding their favored candidates, nearly 5 million voters (over 80 percent of those registered) turned out to vote.
An anti-government coalition called for street protests and a boycott of last month’s election, based on demands for Gbagbo’s release, complaints about security, and allegations of pro-government bias in the voter registry and the election commission. Joining the boycott, some candidates withdrew from the race.
The opposition had little hope of defeating Ouattara, but they hoped to challenge the legitimacy of his reelection through low turnout. The election commission initially announced 60 percent turnout, which was called into question by a platform of civil society organizations known by its French abbreviation POECI. Throughout and after the election, POECI reported election observations – including parallel vote tabulation – from across the country via Twitter, press releases and its blog.
The final official turnout results were 53 percent, which matched the POECI numbers, as did Ouattara’s vote share. Ouattara thus increased his total votes slightly, from 2.5 million in the second round of the 2010 election to 2.6 million in the first and only round of the 2015 election. The low turnout for the opposition may have been a sign of protest, or resignation to the expected outcome.
Last month’s election, with participation from all of the major parties, victory by the predicted winner, and relatively peaceful acceptance by the losers, was a welcome contrast to elections in Côte d’Ivoire’s history. It is likely, however, that elections will become “interesting” again in 2020. At 73, Ouattara is blocked from running again by both the constitutional term limits and old age, and immigration issues and land disputes, not yet fully resolved, may spark conflict again, particularly if the economic boom falters.
Tyson Roberts is a lecturer in political science at UCLA and UC Irvine. He also writes a blog about politics in ECOWAS (West African) countries.