Cote d’Ivoire’s Constitutional Gamble

This is a guest post by Grant Godfrey, Senior Program Manager at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Washington (DC)

Today, Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara’s cabinet is expected to approve a new draft constitution. The government plans to ask voters to enact it through a referendum at the end of October. While there is broad agreement among political party leaders to revise the current constitution’s conflictual provision that requires both a presidential candidate’s parents to be Ivoirian, Ouattara is expected to go beyond this and propose a new basic law. In his Independence Day speech to the nation, he outlined other major changes, principally the creation of a vice-presidency and of a senate.

A “committee of experts,” composed of renowned jurists, began work on the new text on May 31.  So far, public input has been limited to a series of closed meetings with political, traditional and civil society leaders. Meanwhile, public opinion research indicates that Ivoirians do not consider constitutional reform a top priority. A focus group study carried out by the Platform of Civil Society Organizations for Election Observation in Côte d’Ivoire (POECI) found that citizens would prefer the government address outstanding issues of national reconciliation, unemployment, security and the cost of living. A separate poll confirmed the urgency citizens attach to these issues, and also reported that more Ivoirians support a simple revision of existing provisions, rather than replacing the constitution as the government now plans. According to this research, Ivoirians are not exactly opposed to the president’s reforms, but do question their urgency in light of other priorities.

In the absence of an actual text to debate, talk in Abidjan has focused on the process chosen for producing such an important document and the government’s rush to pass it before legislative elections due by December. The opposition FPI has come out against the project, and a number of civil society organizations have requested that the government postpone the referendum to allow for a more inclusive process and to better inform the public on the subject matter of the vote.

The decision to go beyond the constitutional changes agreed on at Linas-Marcoussis has led to much speculation regarding Ouattara’s motives. The vice-presidency is clearly an attempt to avoid succession controversies, such as the one that followed founding President Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993. Some also see it as an attempt by the president to impose a successor and suppress the internal competition between Speaker Guillaume Soro and Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko.  Ouattara seeks to cement his majority by formalizing the union of his Republican Gathering (RDR) party with its coalition partner Democratic Party (PDCI) into a Houphouëtist (RHDP) party, possibly even  before legislative elections. Leadership quarrels within the alliance now could jeopardize the merger. Should it persist after the legislative elections and the FPI win a significant number of seats, the opposition could even hope to work with RHDP dissenters on close votes in the next National Assembly.

Multiplying institutions could create more opportunities for participation by and reconciliation with the opposition, if done inclusively. However, many observers believe that the opportunity to name a vice-president and a large number of senators will instead be used to provide Ouattara with enough patronage opportunities to keep the RHDP coalition together. Indeed, opposition parties’ objections to the expected changes are twofold: the cost of new institutions, and a charge that they will weaken Ivoirian democracy by subjecting even more of the government to presidential control.  

Ouattara no doubt wants to make changes before the 2020 contest starts to overtake policy issues. A defeat of the referendum seems unlikely given his resounding re-election victory last year. However, should Ivoirians decide that they want a greater voice in reforms, a more inclusive process, or that new institutions should depend less on the presidency, the Ivoirian poll could join the Brexit vote as a case study of the unintended consequences of referenda.

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