Côte d’Ivoire – Newly reelected President Ouattara turns his attention to the question of succession

President Alassane Ouattara was reelected for a second five-year term on October 25, 2015. He won convincingly in the first round of the poll, with 83.7% of the vote. Voter turnout was 52.9%, according to the independent election commission (CEI). Contrary to 2010 where more than 3,000 people lost their lives in post-election related violence, this year’s presidential election was peaceful and the stakes much lower. With former President Laurent Gbagbo at The Hague, awaiting trial, Ouattara ran against a divided opposition and was favored to win. Attention now shifts to preparing for a peaceful succession in 2020.

The major wager in this election was the voter turnout, which in 2010 was more than 80% for both rounds of the presidential race. Some opposition leaders had called for a boycott to protest against “an electoral masquerade,” in their words. A victory with voter participation below 50% would have been somewhat tarnished, as reckoned by former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, who headed the ECOWAS observation mission to Côte d’Ivoire. The first turnout figure announced by the CEI on October 27th as results were still being counted was “around 60%,” a figure immediately derided by opposition leaders who claimed the number was in the order of 18%. A civil society coalition that did an independent parallel vote tabulation of the electoral process, POECI (Plateforme des organizations de la societe civile pour l’observation des elections en Cote d’Ivoire), found that voter participation was 53%, with an error margin of plus/minus 1.8%. When the CEI announced the election results on October 28th, an error in the final calculations of the turnout rate led the CEI chairman to announce that turnout had been 54.6%, a number that within hours was corrected downward to the final figure – 52.9%.

The drama around the voter participation rate reflects the deep divisions that persist within Côte d’Ivoire, rooted in political exclusion and an ongoing battle for power between three key leaders – Ouattara, Gbagbo and former President Henri Konan Bedie – since the death of founding father Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993. Despite five years of sustained economic growth during President Ouattara’s first term, little has been done to heal the wounds left by the post-election violence in early 2011 that saw civil warfare in the streets of Abidjan. The three leaders represent Côte d’Ivoire’s three major political parties, the FPI (Gbagbo), the PDCI (Bedie) and the RDR (Ouattara). In Gbagbo’s absence, Affi Nguessan ran as candidate representing a faction of the FPI. Bedie had declined to stand and for the PDCI to present a candidate, supporting Ouattara instead as part of a broader coalition – the RHDP (le Rassemblement de houphouetistes pour la democratie et la paix). Some PDCI stalwarts contested this decision and decided to run as independents instead. With Gbagbo and Bedie not in the running, the real test of Ouattara’s legitimacy lay in the degree to which voters would actually chose to participate in the vote.

With a respectable 50%+ voter turnout rate, President Ouattara now has the mandate to move forward with political reforms that could help heal the rifts among Ivorians and pave the way for a peaceful succession at the end of his second and last term in 2020. Ouattara has indicated that constitutional reform will be an immediate priority. Notably, he wants the infamous article 35 of the constitution removed, which states that to be eligible, both of a candidate’s parents have to be “of Ivorian origin”. This was article was thus worded in an expressed effort to exclude Ouattara himself from standing for election in 2000, when the constitution was adopted. Another possible change is the introduction of the position of vice-president in Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential constitution.

Succession is squarely on Ouattara’s mind: “Je ne pense qu’a cela” (I’m constantly thinking about it). The peaceful transition of power to the next generation would be an important measure of his success at the helm of the state. Introducing a vice-president position could be an attractive means of grooming his successor. Ouattara has even said he could consider stepping down before ending his second term and handing over the reins to a vice-president, if things are going well.

Stabilizing Côte d’Ivoire for the long term would require the development of democratic practices and norms that go beyond patronage (a page from Houphouet-Boigny’s playbook which Ouattara by some accounts has copied). It would require the development of a party system that channels and mediates competing interests, with competing societal programs. Ouattara’s challenge is not just to groom a successor, but to turn the RDR/RHDP coalition into a party/coalition with strong internal democratic norms and practices that can help the rise of a new generation of democrats.

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