With political tensions high and trust in the fairness of the 31 October election low, Côte d'Ivoire looks set for contested results.
When President Alassane Ouattara announced that he would not be standing again for office, some roared with delight, some wept, and some sent messages of praise. The 78-year-old, in power since 2011, had made several ambiguous statements in recent months, raising fears he would seek an unconstitutional third term. But now he confirmed that he would step down after the 31 October vote.
President Ouattara's volte face prompted sighs of relief among Ivoirians, the French government and the European Union. His decision removes a major source of tension between the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) and the opposition. It marginally diminishes the risk of unrest around the poll.
Many hope that the 2020 elections will see Côte d'Ivoire's first democratic handover of power. Ivoirians and observers alike are particularly desperate to avoid a repeat of 2010, when post-election violence between supporters of Ouattara and then-president Laurent Gbagbo left at least 3,000 people dead.
President Ouattara's announcement increases the likelihood of smooth elections, but it is not a panacea for the divisions that have beset the country for the past ten years. Amid the government's creeping authoritarianism and fears over the transparency of the forthcoming vote, there are still many issues unresolved.
Persistent political tensions
Ouattara's decision not to stand again has thawed some tensions, but many gripes persist. The opposition claims that political space has significantly diminished in recent years, beginning with the introduction of a new constitution in 2016 following a referendum that much of the opposition boycotted.
They also allege further constitutional changes, introduced just after Ouattara declared that he would step aside, were rubber-stamped by an RHDP-dominated parliament and without the consent of the Ivoirian people. The opposition also boycotted this process, claiming it was unjust without the approval of the populace.
Of greater concern, there have been several charges aimed at opposition figures in recent months. In October 2019, Jacques Mangoua, a leading figure in the opposition Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire - African Democratic Rally (PDCI), was sentenced to five years in prison. He was found guilty of holding illegal weaponry at his house, an accusation he says was fabricated.
Following an arrest warrant in December 2019, president candidate Guillaume Soro, the former head of the National Assembly, has been in exile in Paris. He is accused of embezzlement and laundering public funds as well as plotting a coup, allegations he denies. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison this April. Several of his associates have also been arrested.
The government's increasingly authoritarian moves have created a tense political atmosphere in which allegiances are more pronounced and emotions are running high. In October 2018, local elections prompted clashes around the country in which several people were killed. If anything, the situation has become more fragile since then, despite Ouattara's announcement.
Transparency and fairness
In the 2010 elections, the most contentious issue centred on the legitimacy of the results. The electoral commission declared Ouattara the new president, but Gbagbo refused to accept this, saying the results were invalid. He was supported in this by the constitutional court, which said the electoral commission did not have the authority to pronounce the results.
As things stand, there is a danger of the past repeating itself. The transparency and fairness of the forthcoming election is deeply questionable.
The opposition has repeatedly accused the electoral commission of being biased towards the RHDP. In 2016, the African Court of Human Rights ordered Ivoirian authorities to reform the institution. Under international pressure, the government finally agreed to do so in July 2019. However, the opposition says that despite improvements, the composition of the institution is still unjust in that it provides more seats to the government than the opposition. Some critics also say the reforms were rushed through without sufficient time for scrutiny.
This has left the opposition divided over whether they will participate in the poll without further reforms. This March, the government tried to resolve matters by offering the PDCI a seat on the commission, but this was rejected for being insufficient.
The introduction of voter identity cards has presented another problem. Some Ivoirians have complained they have been unable to acquire them despite going to register on numerous occasions and sometimes queuing for days at a time. Many voters also say that the cost of the cards is prohibitive. Cynics allege the RHDP plans to subsidise the acquisition of IDs for their supporters to give them an advantage.
With so many unresolved issues regarding the election process, it is likely the result will be contested.
A closely fought election
There are various scenarios that would diminish the likelihood of violence. If the opposition decide to boycott the poll, for instance, allowing the RHDP to win with ease, unrest could be avoided.
Alternatively, should the ruling party's presidential candidate Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly prove so strong as to win in the first round, the prospects of instability would also decline. This is plausible given the ruling party's increasing dominance, the advantages of incumbency and the fact that so many PDCI MPs defected to the RHDP when it became a unified political entity in 2018. Moreover, Ouattara's decision to stand down removes one of the few unifying causes around which the opposition might have coalesced. Meanwhile, if Soro cannot run following his conviction, that would also help the ruling party.
Nonetheless, it still seems likely that the election will be closely fought. Gon Coulibaly is not particularly popular nor charismatic and has just been evacuated to France for medical tests. He will struggle to garner support in the way Ouattara has done.
His rivals also look set to mount significant challenges. In particular, the PDCI's Henri Konan Bédié, a universally recognised 85-year-old political dinosaur, may be reinvigorated by the opportunity to face a much less experienced opponent. Although Soro himself will not be able to stand, his supporters - concentrated among the northern youth population, traditional RHDP strongholds - are furious following their leader's marginalisation and exile and will be eager to push Ouattara and his allies out of office. In these circumstances they may opt to lend their support to Bédié.
If Bédié manages to force the vote into a second round, he may just manage to collect enough votes to clinch the election. He has already formed an alliance with the other opposition parties, including Soro's Generations and People in Solidarity (GPS) and former president Gbagbo's Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI). The growing strength of alliances between these opposition parties was highlighted days ago when Gbagbo and Bédié signed a political accord in favour of establishing peace and reconciliation in Côte d'Ivoire. To oust the increasingly authoritarian RHDP, these divergent parties could come together in the second round.
If this happened and the opposition were to win, would the RHDP accept the results? If the ruling party won, would the opposition? With tensions running high in Côte d'Ivoire and questions looming over the legitimacy of the upcoming October election, the answer to both these questions is likely no. Despite Ouattara's decision not to run for a third term, a contested election and political violence - at least on the scale witnessed in the October 2018 legislative elections - seem to be on the cards.
Jessica Moody is a PhD candidate in the War Studies Department at King's College London. Her research focuses on post-conflict peacebuilding, demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, and transitional justice processes in Cote d'Ivoire. She is also a freelance political risk and peacebuilding consultant and has worked with the United States Institute of Peace, the Economist Intelligence Unit and IHS Markit.