Ivory Coast’s Constitutional Court ruled last week that only four out of 44 presidential hopefuls would be allowed to run in the country’s presidential election.
Most of the others whose candidacies were judged invalid had failed to amass enough support from the public – a new electoral reform required candidates to canvass signatures from at least 1 percent of the electorate in 17 of the country’s regions in order to stand.
Those remaining will compete in the first round of the election on October 31. It will be the biggest challenge to the political stability of the country since the 2010-11 post-electoral crisis.
President Alassane Ouattara’s bid for a third term in office has been rife with controversy. Opponents and legal experts point out that the Ivorian constitution limits the presidency to two terms. The government maintains that because the constitution was reformed in 2016, the term count should be re-set to zero.
For years, Ouattara had suggested that he would not run again. The 78-year-old had made repeated promises to hand power over to “a young generation”. He declared in March that Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, 61, would contest the election in his place. But Coulibaly’s sudden death from a heart attack in July shattered his plans for his political succession, and so Ouattara was forced to rethink.
French President Emmanuel Macron had congratulated Ouattara on his initial decision not to stand for a third term.
After weeks of speculation, Ouattara made an address broadcast on state TV, telling the country that he would run again. “This decision represents a real sacrifice for me,” he solemnly declared.
The announcement triggered protests across the country leading to at least 15 deaths in subsequent clashes between demonstrators and the police.
Before entering politics, Ouattara worked as an IMF economist and served as the Governor of the Central Bank of West African States. On the campaign trail, he will be keen to boast of his presidential legacy of economic development. Since Ouattara entered office in 2011 following a post-electoral crisis that claimed at least 3,000 lives, the country’s GDP has grown by an average of 8 percent annually (although the poverty rate remains high, at 46.3 percent). Under his watch, the government introduced universal health coverage, built new roads and massively expanded access to electricity.
“We are the only political group able to guarantee development and the continued improvement of living standards for our citizens, in peace and security,” he told a cheering crowd as he was sworn in as his party’s candidate.
In 2015, Ouattara won a landslide victory with 84 percent of the vote. This time around it will be harder. He does not have the support of Henri Konan Bédié (who is arguably now his greatest challenger) and faces anger over the exclusion of Gbagbo and Soro from the race.
Henri Konan Bédié
The 86-year-old President of the PDCI party is Ouattara’s main challenger. He is also the figure around which other opposition parties are likely to unite should the election go to a second-round. To detractors that say he is too old to run, he insists: “Age is an asset”.
Bédié served as President of Ivory Coast from 1993 to 1999. His presidency was marked by the embrace of Ivoirité – a xenophobic ideology used to discriminate against those of Burkinabe and Malian origins. Under the guise of Ivoirité, Bédié barred Ouattara, whose father was rumoured to be from Burkina Faso, from taking part in the 1995 presidential election.
After being ousted in a coup in 1999 – the first in the country’s history – he went into exile in France before returning to Ivory Coast in 2002 during the outbreak of the civil war.
After coming third in the 2010 presidential election, Bédié urged PDCI supporters to back Ouattara in the second round in an ultimately successful bid to oust Laurent Gbagbo from power.
In 2015 his party supported Ouattara again, this time from the outset, helping the RHDP win a landslide. A number of PDCI members gained ministerial positions in government and continue to hold them, even after the alliance fell apart in 2018.
In the run up to the 2020 election, there are signs that Bédié has been successful in building new alliances. On Sunday he held a meeting attended by parties whose candidates have been barred from competing by the constitutional court. Flanked by delegates from the pro-Gbagbo wing of the FPI party and Guillaume Soro’s GPS party, he called for civil disobedience in response to Ouattara’s “violation” of the constitution. He was met with rapturous applause.
Bédié has called for the return of all exiles and the release of all remaining political prisoners from the 2010-11 post-electoral crisis. He has also promised, paradoxically, to lower tax rates and boost public spending.
Pascal Affi N’Guessan
Despite having come second in the last presidential election, Pascal Affi N’Guessan faces a difficult campaign.
The 67-year-old ex-Prime Minister is the ‘official’ leader of the FPI – the left-wing party set up by Laurent Gbagbo. After Gbagbo was sent to face charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in 2011, the party split in two.
Gbagbo loyalists created the so-called ‘Gbagbo or Nothing’ faction and boycotted previous elections, refusing to recognise Affi N’Guessan as a legitimate replacement for the party’s founder.
N’Guessan has said he would welcome the return of Gbagbo from exile but argues that until that day comes, he should lead the FPI into elections. He has dismissed the ‘Gbagbo or Nothing’ wing as “remaining in the logic of dissidence”.
Affi N’Guessan was not invited to Bédié’s opposition meeting on Sunday but has joined those denouncing Ouattara’s third term bid as unconstitutional, describing the current government as a “dictatorship”.
His chances of winning in the first round are small – particularly if the ‘Gbagbo or Nothing’ wing keeps its promise to not boycott this election and then throws its weight behind Bédié.
In all likelihood, N’Guessan’s impact will be limited to whether he too decides to back the PDCI or not – if he chooses not to, Ouattara’s chances of a third term victory could be higher.
Kouadio Konan Bertin
Affectionally known as KKB, Kouadio Konan Bertin once had grand ambitions of standing as a candidate for the PDCI. But after falling out with Bédié in 2015, he decided to run as an independent, coming third in the election.
Konan Bertin tried to win the nomination to stand for the PDCI going into this election. He took aim at Bédié in an interview with Jeune Afrique: “He said himself in 2010 that he had led his last fight. In 2020, this cannot still be his last fight! He also recognised that he was not sure if he still had the strength to run a government. In 2010, he was not even able to take part in a TV debate to defend his programme in front of the Ivorian people.”
He was ultimately spurned by the party. The 51-year old former MP is now standing as the election’s only independent candidate.
Forty percent of the Ivorian population is under the age of 15. KKB is pitching himself as a fresh-faced alternative to the other three candidates who have an average age of 77 and who have long-dominated Ivorian politics.
His campaign slogans include “Reform, reconciliation, redistribution” and “Together create the conditions of true change”. Winning more than 3.1 percent of the vote (his 2015 result) and putting those words into action will be difficult without the backing of the electoral machinery of the major parties.