Elections in Ivory Coast are a chance for the opposition to regain power, with President Alassane Ouattara ruling with a majority. The outcome could decide the future of Ivorian parties, international observers say.
Ivory Coast is heading to another election, four months after the presidential elections — marred by violence —took place. On March 6, Ivorians are voting in parliamentary elections in which the opposition will take part after boycotting the presidential poll. Currently, the National Assembly is dominated by Houphouetist Rally for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), led by President Alassane Ouattara.
For the first time in 10 years, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), headed by former President Laurent Gbagbo, is participating in the polls. FPI will contest as part of a coalition called Together for Democracy and Sovereignty (EDS). The coalition has allied with the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI). Henri Konan Bedie — another Ivory Coast ex-president — is the leader of PDCI.
"This is the first election in 10 years in which all significant opposition forces are participating again," said Thilo Schöne, who works with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German think tank affiliated with the Social Democrats Party (SPD).
"It's the first time in a long time that we can see who has influence among the population," said Schöne, who is based in Abidjan. According to him, the ruling RHDP will retain most seats because of its access to financial resources and a "well-rehearsed" election campaign machine. Also, the opposition did not put candidates forward together.
Concerns of voter apathy
Schöne expects a low voter turnout. "There are fears to go to the elections after what happened last year," he said. Bedie and Gbagbo protested Ouattara's reelection in October. The 79-year-old leader ran for a third term. The opposition then called for "civil disobedience." The violence that followed left 87 dead and nearly 500 wounded. After gestures of appeasement by the government, including the conditional release of several of arrested opposition leaders, Bedie and Gbagbo agreed to participate in the legislative elections.
"Since then, it has become much quieter in the country, partly because two of the main protagonists, ex-President Bedie and President Ouattara, have spoken to each other in the meantime," Florian Karner, from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is closely linked to Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU), told DW.
In the last legislative elections of December 2016, the RHDP and the PDCI were allies and had won an absolute majority, with 167 out of 255 seats.
Independent candidates with fresh ideas
Because Ouattara's RHDP has a parliamentary majority, it currently allows him to "basically govern through," Karner said. But the political observer hopes that this election will change the situation. "We are very interested in a strong and diverse parliament."
Political diversity in the National Assembly could become a reality if the number of independent candidates running for a seat is anything to go by. "There is the one or the other independent aspirant who is asking the right, perhaps also unpleasant, questions," Karner said. "There are also strong women among them, who are strongly underrepresented in parliament, but also the circle of candidates." Since November, 30% of each party's total candidates for the parliamentary election must be women.
Positions to be filled
Apart from the chance for the opposition to regain power and hold Ouattara accountable again, there are also many key posts to be filled within the government. In July, the vice president resigned. A year before that, the Economic and Social Council president passed away. Both positions remain vacant.
The Ivorian government is reeling from a lack of top officials, with many at the moment seemingly incapable of carrying out their duties because of health concerns. The president of the senate has been ill since July. Likewise, the president of the National Assembly recently returned after spending months abroad because of illness. The prime minister has recently been to France for health reasons. Lastly, the president of the Grand Chancellery appears increasingly weakened, and public appearances have become rare.
"There is a lack of political personnel here," Karner said. "We see a caste of politicians that has been renewed very little in the last 30 to 40 years, and that is now reaching its limits, physically but also programatically."
A chance to chart a new path
These elections are not just about winning seats in parliament. For some of the parties, such as the traditional PDCI founded in 1946, it is also a matter of internal change. "These elections will decide which groups in the respective parties will win and whether a generational change will take place," Schöne said. "And there are internal power struggles, too. Who will win their constituency? Who will then position themselves in the parliamentary group, and how? There is a question of renewing the party."
The election could also decide whether Gbagbo will return. The former president has remained in exile in Brussels since being released by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2019. "For the country, it is clear that he will return at some point. He still has very solid support, but his own ambitions are not really clear," Karner said.
Will Gbagbo return?
Gbagbo announced this week in a statement that "after 10 long years of absence from the country, I will soon be with you." The 75-year-old was accused of crimes against humanity committed after losing the 2010 presidential election. ICC judges acquitted him of all charges. "I think it would be a sign of reconciliation that the Ivorian son is coming back," said Schöne. "This question of his return is somewhat decided by the election. If Gbagbo's FPI, as a coalition partner in the EDS, wins strongly, then Ouattara cannot ignore that."
Within Ouattara's RHDP, the parliamentary elections are a possibility for politicians to position themselves, especially looking at the next elections, in 2025. "Everyone is positioning themselves as Ouattara's successor," Schöne said. "Whoever is installed as prime minister after this election and has access to important projects, that will be a first hint on who Ouattara might have chosen as his successor," Schöne said.