President Alassane Ouattara won a third term in Côte d’Ivoire’s Oct. 31 election, with 94 percent of the vote. Was this a free and fair election? Some outside analysts suggest that it was not, raising memories of the country’s authoritarian past.
Opposition candidates Henri Konan Bédié and Pascal Affi N’Guessan had called on supporters to boycott the vote, complaining Ouatarra’s candidacy violated the presidential two-term limit. After the vote, police fired tear gas in front of Bédié’s home and arrested his top aides and N’Guessan for calling for new elections and announcing the creation of a parallel government.
The challenges of the Ivoirian 2020 elections have their roots in conflicts that began 30 years ago, when Ouattara and Bédié were rivals to succeed Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the country’s first president. Here’s what you need to know.
Ouattara and Bédié have long been rivals
Founding President Houphouët-Boigny led his party, the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), to win six uncontested elections from 1960 to 1990. In response to protests against austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund, he lifted a ban on opposition parties in 1990 but still overwhelmingly won a seventh term against Laurent Gbagbo of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI). That same year, Bédié was elected to a third five-year term as National Assembly president and Ouattara was named prime minister.
The two rivals were leaders in Houphouët-Boigny’s party but opposites in many respects. Bédié is from the Christian-majority south; Ouattara from the Muslim-majority north.
Bédié led the country’s patronage-based political elite, which distributed resources to loyalists in exchange for their votes and support. Ouattara, a U.S.-trained IMF economist, was a technocrat — recruited to manage an economy that, after decades of prosperity, had fallen on hard times. Ouattara’s crackdown on corruption threatened the political foundation of Bédié’s political class, and his popularity in the north endangered Bédié’s aspirations for the presidency.
Conflicts deepened after the founding father’s death
When Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, Bédié succeeded him as president. Ouattara resigned and joined a new party, the Rassemblement des Républicains.
To block Ouattara from opposing Bédié in the 1995 presidential election, the National Assembly passed a law applying the doctrine of Ivoirité — that Ivorians are born to two parents who are Ivorian by birth — to the presidency. Ouattara, with partial parentage in neighboring Burkina Faso, was thereby disqualified. Gbagbo boycotted the election in protest, and Bédié won in 1995 with 96 percent of the vote.
Before the 2000 presidential election, Bédié was overthrown in a coup that brought General Robert Guéï to power, and a newly FPI-dominated National Assembly adopted a constitution that enshrined the Ivoirité rule, blocking Ouattara and others from the ballot. After an unsuccessful attempt by Guéï to declare victory, Gbagbo won the presidency and extended Ivoirité to new policy areas, including procurement of any identification document, sparking a civil war between north and south in 2002.
Amid the ongoing war, Gbagbo canceled the 2005 election. A negotiated agreement in 2007 brought the war to an end, and Ouattara, Gbagbo and Bédié faced off for the first time in the 2010 election. After no candidate captured a majority in the first round, confusion reigned in the runoff results. The independent electoral commission declared Ouattara the election winner while the Constitutional Court called it for Gbagbo. A second civil war broke out, ending with Gbagbo’s capture and transfer to the International Criminal Court for trial on crimes against humanity charges (he was acquitted and released in 2019), and Ouattara became president.
A peaceful, democratizing interlude
After presiding over a second economic miracle, marked by three years of rapid growth, Ouattara led his multiparty coalition, the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP), to win re-election in 2015. Despite less competition and lower voter participation than in 2010, the lack of party bans or boycotts, and a broadly accepted outcome without a coup, civil war or mass protests signaled a step forward toward democratic consolidation.
The run-up to the 2020 presidential election appeared to promise further democratic progress, as continued economic prosperity laid the groundwork for stability. A new constitution adopted via a 2016 referendum removed the Ivoirité restriction and included a presidential two-term limit. In March, Ouattara made good on his promise not to seek a third term by designating Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as the RHDP coalition’s presidential candidate.
But the positive trajectory did not last
Despite economic growth, inequality persisted in Côte d’Ivoire. And security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters opposed to the 2016 referendum for the new constitution, which included eliminating age limits that would have prevented Ouattara (who was 74 at the time) from running again.
Bédié, after withdrawing his party from Ouattara’s coalition, announced his candidacy for president in June 2020. When Gon Coulibaly died suddenly in July, Ouattara reconsidered his decision to retire. Ouattara argued that he now needed to run to ensure continued stability, while his opponents argued that a run by the two-time president would destabilize the country.
In September, the Constitutional Court affirmed Ouattara’s position that the 2016 constitution reset the term limit clock, ruling him eligible to run. The Court disqualified two prominent challengers, Gbagbo and former Ouattara ally and prime minister Guillaume Soro, for recent in absentia criminal convictions.
Thousands of opposition supporters protested 2020 Ouattara’s run and dozens were killed in conflicts between supporters and opponents of the president. Meanwhile, N’Guessan (FPI) and Bédié’s boycott of the election showed limited success; official turnout this year was 54 percent, similar to turnout in the 2015 election.
The 2020 Ivorian election follows a recent pattern of democratic backsliding in West Africa. Incumbents in Burkina Faso, Togo and Guinea exploited rule changes to subvert a two-term limit. Benin’s president disqualified political opponents with controversial court convictions. Burkina Faso protesters successfully forced their president to step down, but in most cases, incumbents remained in power. Ouattara is likely to survive in office, but the country has struck some potholes in the road toward democratic consolidation.
Tyson Roberts teaches political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.