1 August 2013

Cote d'Ivoire: Déjà Vu All Over Again - the Ivory Coast's 2015 Elections

Photo: Olivier Monnier/IRIN
A house destroyed by violence in the west of the country (file photo).

Apart from Gbagbo, the same political heavyweights who have been involved in problematic elections in the Ivory Coast for the past twenty years look set to run again.

On his recent tour of the north, the Ivory's Coast's President Alassane Ouattara announced his decision to run for re-election in 2015 in order "to continue the important work we have begun". His announcement, more than two years before the elections, perhaps seemed somewhat premature to external observers, but this move was likely a reaction to recent manoeuvres made by various other Ivorian political heavyweights, who have already began posturing for the 2015 polls.

The country's last presidential elections, almost three years ago, were meant to conclude the country's peace process, but with the results hotly-disputed, the post-electoral period saw the tensions of the Ivorian Civil War reignited. For six months, old foes once again opposed each other on the battlefield before the internationally-recognised winner of the elections, Alassane Ouattara, seized power from the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo.

In the 2010 elections, all of the candidates who ran for presidency had been central figures in the 2002 to 2007 civil war. And now, as 2015 approaches, the very same constellation of actors - with the exception of Gbagbo, who was arrested and is now awaiting trial in the International Criminal Court - seem to be getting ready to run again.

Ouattara's rise to the top

Alassane Ouattara came to power after the 2010 elections, following an already lengthy and tumultuous career in politics.

Ouattara had been a protégé of Felix Houphouët-Boigny, the Ivory Coast's founding father, and rose to the position of prime minister in 1990 under Houphouët-Boigny's presidency. Following the president's death in 1993, however, a leadership struggle within the ruling PDCI party ensued between Ouattara and his rival, Henri Konan Bédié, who eventually emerged victorious.

In a bid to undermine Ouattara's ambitions, Bédié - now president - revised the electoral code to bar all "non-Ivorians" from running for the presidency. Ouattara, who lived in Burkina Faso from 1994 to 1999, and whose father was born in Burkina Faso, fell under Bédié's definition of "non-Ivorian" and was barred from running in 1995 and subsequently in 2000.

It was only in 2010 - with Laurent Gbagbo now as president, and after a lengthy postponement of elections due to ongoing instability despite the civil war officially ending 2007 - that Ouattara was finally allowed to run.

The 2010 election went to a second-round run-off between Ouattara and Gbagbo. Bédié, who had come third, threw his support behind Ouattara, figuring that it was in his interests to try to get rid of Gbagbo, a traditional opponent of the Houphouët-Boigny-regime and thus of both Ouattara and Bédié, even if that meant backing his long-time rival.

PDCI players

Bédié and his PDCI party were rewarded with a place in the ruling coalition alongside Ouattara's RDR party, but competition between the two heavyweights has never completely ceased, and renewed frictions between the two have become increasingly apparent.

It is not surprising then that Bédié seems to be readying himself for the next presidential race already. In a recent television interview, the 79-year-old confirmed that he will stand as the PDCI's presidential candidate once again, and confidently asserted that one should "never change a winning team".

However, while his presidential ambitions are clear for all to see, it is not a given that he will in fact emerge as the PDCI candidate. Charles Konan Banny, another member of PDCI and a prime minister under Gbagbo, also appears keen for the presidency. And Banny's move to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2011 was interpreted by many as a means to distinguish himself as a suitable candidate. A third option is that both Bédié and Banny will run, with Banny breaking away to create his own party.

Soro: wannabe king or kingmaker?

Already then, three old stalwarts - Ouattara (71), Bédié (79) and Banny (70) - appear ready to compete for the highest office in the land, probably each for the last time. But the field will not necessarily be restricted to the old guard.

Guillaume Soro is a former leader of the northern Forces Nouvelles - the main rebel grouping in the civil war - and was prime minister under both Gbagbo and Ouattara. Despite being the tender age of just 41 then, Soro already clearly has plenty of political experience and is understood to be highly ambitious. He is well-regarded, especially in the north of the country, and has managed to maintain the trust and support of the former rebel forces he once led.

In 2010, Soro was officially too young to stand as a presidential candidate - a problem he will face again in 2015 as he still will not have reached the minimum age of 45 - but this may not prove important. Indeed, after Ouattara's cabinet reshuffle in November 2012, Soro became President of the National Assembly, an office which is meant to have the same minimum age limit. Incidentally, this post is also traditionally seen as a stepping stone to greater things - two previous Ivorian leaders held the office immediately before become president.

However, it is important to note that Soro has not yet declared his candidacy, and he may well prefer to wait until 2020 and continue to enjoy his role as a kingmaker in the meantime. Indeed, Soro will have a great deal of influence whether he runs or not.

During the last elections, Soro helped to secure many votes for Ouattara and in return was made prime minister. This time round, such an alliance seems less likely - the relationship between the two is believed to have deteriorated and some allege that Ouattara wanted to get rid of Soro in the 2012 cabinet reshuffle - but Soro appears to have other options. In fact, rumour has it that it was only through an intervention by Bédié that Soro was given the position of President of the National Assembly. If this is true, it could be a sign of a newly-developing alliance between Soro and Bédié.

The final piece of the puzzle - that is, who will run for FPI, Gbagbo's former party - remains unclear and difficult to predict. The party is still focused on the fate of its founder and has suspended its participation in most political processes.

But whoever it picks (if anyone), it seems clear that the 2015 elections will be yet another chapter in a long-standing power struggle between some now very familiar faces - a struggle that has now been going on for decades and plunged the country into civil war twice already.

Even in the absence of Gbagbo, historically one of the major players in this political sandstorm, the stakes remain high. Ancient personal rivalries, combined with the fear of missing out on the power and resources of the presidential office, will ensure that the elections in 2015 will again test the Ivory Coast's fragile democracy.

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