On December 11, only about 37% of registered voters turned out to vote in the Ivory Coast’s first legislative elections in a decade. The low turnout, compared to the 80% that voted in the November 10 presidential elections, suggests that Ivorians have become apathetic. The opposition boycotted the elections while the country's fragile electoral machinery has come under continuous scathing criticism. In fact, the only people who benefited from the public apathy are President Allasane Ouattara and his allies from the Rally of the Republicans (RDR), the Republican Forces (FRCI) and the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI).
The RDR won just under half the 255-member legislature and the PDCI garnered 93 seats. Having boosted Ouattara's political leverage, the legislative elections could further entrench the 'winner takes all' politics that have come to characterise Ivorian society since the rule of the country’s former strongman Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The implications of this increased isolation are particularly ominous given the fact that the country is barely recovering from civil war and electoral violence that have worsened the country's tribal and regional divisions.
The Ivory Coast’s malfunctioning electoral system epitomises the perennial institutional dysfunction that the country has suffered since the return to multi-party democracy in the early-1990s. Over the past decades, the country has transformed from a model of economic prosperity and political stability in the years following independence to one plundered by tribal chauvinism and economic disarticulation.
The most apparent symptom of the Ivorian crisis is the inability of the state to manage successful political competition and democratic transition. The first Ivorian multiparty general elections in 1990 were hailed as a progressive political development in line with wider regional changes at the time. However, the elections were riddled by manipulation and low voter turnout. Subsequently, incumbents have exploited tribal and nationalist sentiments to exclude leading political figures.
In 1995 and 2000, Alassane Ouattara was disqualified largely as a result of the policy of Ivoirité that was instigated by the then president, Henri Konan Bédié. His disqualification symbolised the exclusionary character of Ivoirité, which in electoral terms implied disqualification of candidates and disenfranchisement of voters whose parents were not 'true' Ivorians. In a country whose leading commodity, cocoa, had for long been fueled by immigrant labour from other West African countries, especially Burkina Faso and Mali, Ivoirité threatened to disenfranchise a whole generation of Ivorians who had blood relations to members of other countries. The ensuing sense of marginalisation, especially predominant in the north, accounted for the country’s almost decade-long civil war.
Throughout the Ivory Coast’s turbulent political times, the country’s electoral commission has failed to integrate various political groups through credible and transparent electoral management. Almost all Ivorian elections have witnessed a boycott by a leading political group. While in 1995 it was the RDR and the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), the 2000 and 2001 boycotts were led by the PDCI and the RDR respectively.
The December 2010 elections presented a rare opportunity to transform the electoral fortunes of the country. Viewed as part of a peace deal, the country’s “vote for peace” promised to overcome the perils of Ivoirité and boycotts. Many Ivoirians, as demonstrated by the 80% run-off turnout, were optimistic and revelled in the opportunity to finally close a bloody chapter in their country’s history. With an electoral panel that had been reconstituted with inputs and representation from major political stakeholders, the country looked set to break the spiral of electoral disputes.
The outcome of the elections and its catastrophic end which saw a violent enforcement of the people’s will on the incumbent who refused to accept the verdict of the election was very worrying. The electoral commission’s failure to extricate itself from accusations of questionable neutrality, coupled with electoral fraud and intimidation was largely responsible for the bloody outcome of the 2010 elections.
President Ouattara’s investiture, violently enforced after months of stalemate, has not been followed by much progress. While the Ivory Coast faces enormous challenges that will take much time to overcome, the signals from the Ouattara administration, especially in reconciling competing political factions, leave much to be desired. The systematic intimidation of individuals and groups loyal to the FPI, despite rhetoric of reconciliation, has left many to wonder if the president is pursuing a policy of “reconciliation by annihilation”. Ethnic and political animosities seem to have worsened under Ouattara’s government.
The government continues to rely on the predominant northern FRCI to maintain national security. While the FRCI succeeded in overthrowing the Gbagbo regime earlier this year, its success was largely due to the support of the French-led UN forces and a national army whose morale had been dented by targeted sanctions and international isolation. But the FRCI, in terms of its antecedents and makeup, is not a national army. One of the president’s early security strategies was to purge FRCI of renegade fighters, like Ibrahim Coulibaly, and to build an ‘army’ based around loyalty and his prime minister, Guilleme Soro. Unfortunately, this development has meant that the security framework for the December 11 legislative elections was based on those provided by the Republican Forces, with some support from UN forces. Indeed, given the fact that the FRCI-UN alliance was what accounted for the overthrow of Laurent Gbagbo, it was not surprising that the FPI cited inadequate security as a reason, among others, for the party’s boycott of the parliamentary elections.
The inadequate security framework for the legislative elections was also compounded by the growing sense of ‘victor’s justice’ that has seen the arrest and prosecution of leading figures in the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) government. While right groups have cited both Ouattara and Gbagbo factions in human rights violations during the electoral violence, the government and the International Criminal Court have been swift in apprehending the latter group. Despite reports of killings and abuses by Republic Forces, there have been no arrests or prosecution of members of the Ouattara faction in pro-Gbagbo communities such as Duekoue, and Yopougon. After the investiture of Allasane Ouattara, there has been intensified hostility against the Bété, Attié, Guéré, and Goro ethnic groups who supported Laurent Gbagbo. Within this atmosphere of intimidation and insecurity, it has become increasingly difficult for opposing groups to mobilise and campaign for any electoral office.
One of the unfortunate developments of post-violence Ivory Coast has been the inadequate commitment by the government, and the international community towards electoral reform despite the country’s perennial electoral system failures. In particular, the thorny issue on fair representation of political parties on the electoral commission has been largely ignored. Many have argued that with Ouattara’s RDI and Konan Bedie’s PDCI cooperating closely, the opposition role on the commission is not representative enough. Besides, the legal framework within which violent electoral competition occurred has also witnessed little reform.
In many ways, the expected domination of Ouattara’s allies will present him with a new opportunity to undertake his economic and political vision for the Ivory Coast. It equally places much responsibility on the president to urgently actualise his promise of equal justice and reconciliation. More action is required to assure pro-Gbagbo political and social groups that they will not become targets of undue state intimidation and that they will be part and parcel of the country’s governance processes. Urgent action must be taken to bring all perpetrators of human rights violations since the civil war to account. Besides, pressing electoral reforms are required to promote a level playing field for all political groups. Electoral reform must not be considered in isolation, but as interlinked with other security and judicial reforms.
The sad truth is that the international community, chiefly the UN and France, are facing a significant credibility gap in the Ivory Coast. While the attempt to enforce the people’s verdict was received with much support, its engagements in the country following the inauguration of Ouattara have not come with concrete attempts to engage with other opposing political groups. The need to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, including some commanders of the Republican Forces, cannot be overemphasised. As it is, the Ivory Coast is likely to begin 2012 divided and volatile. The 2011 legislative elections have done little to help.
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