Grant Godfrey – Takeaways from the legislative elections in Côte d’Ivoire

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

The Legislature of the Third Republic of Côte d’Ivoire met for the first time on January 9, 2017, having been elected on December 18.  Two seats remain vacant after the Constitutional Council annulled the polls in Divo and KouiblyThe election results are complete enough, however, to draw some conclusions about what to expect going forward:

  • President Alassane Ouattara will continue to enjoy very few political limits. He succeeded in having his Rally of the Republicans (RDR) and former president Henri Konan Bédié’s Democratic Party (PDCI) present a joint candidate list to voters, as the Houphouëtist Alliance for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). This is a major step toward the re-unification of the two parties after they split in 1994, reinforced by its victory at the polls: the RHDP can already claim 167 of the Assembly’s 255 seats, an overwhelming majority. It need only obtain 3 extra votes to amend the new constitution without a referendum.
  • Pascal Affi N’Guéssan’s leadership of the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) is threatened. N’Guéssan has not been able to mobilize former president Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters at the polls. After receiving less than ten percent of the vote in the 2015 presidential race, N’Guéssan hoped to use rebuild the party with legislative success. The FPI hoped to win 30 seats it could use as a base for rebuilding a party starved for a taste of power. The party only achieved a tenth of that goal. Perhaps the biggest shock from these elections is that the FPI will not even be able to form its own parliamentary caucus.
  • There is no public opinion data to explain why the FPI fared so poorly, but the boycott called for by its hard-core wing, which refuses to recognize Affi’s leadership, surely played some role. Expect the “Gbagbo or nothing” hawks to continue to attack the inclusiveness of the Assembly and the legitimacy of Ivoirian elections and democratic institutions. 
  • In the absence of strong party contests in most districts, commentators looked to voter turnout as a key indicator of popular sentiment. The 34% national turnout rate represents a steep decline of voter participation from the constitutional referendum (42%) and presidential poll (53%). The Platform of Civil Society Organizations for Election Observation in Cote d’Ivoire (POECI) once again conducted a Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), which was able to confirm the national turnout rate and other process indicators. In the south of the country turnout was even lower: POECI calculated a 15% rate in Koumassi, one of four races where it conducted a district-level PVT.
  • POECI and other civic groups continue to garner credibility, and a corresponding degree of influence, for Ivoirian civil society. The Observatory of the Code of Good Conduct, which monitors a voluntary agreement among political parties and candidates to conduct fair campaigns, again denounced violations when they occurred, regardless of who perpetrated them.
  • Voters are (still) dissatisfied with top-down management of the political process by party leaders. The RHDP victory, while resounding, comes with a pair of black eyes.  The low turnout rate and the victory of 75 “independent” candidates (29% of the Assembly seats) send a clear message that voters don’t want RHDP leaders choosing the people’s representatives for them.  Many of the independents are in fact RDR or PDCI figures, including incumbents who found themselves off the RHDP candidate list.  The Cocody race where incumbent Yasmina Ouegnin beat Communications Minister Affoussiata Bamba by over 10% exemplifies this.  Bamba was “parachuted” into the race by RHDP leadership to face Ouegnin after Ouegnin opposed the constitutional revision process.  While many independents are likely to back Ouattara on most issues, or even re-join the RHDP, their success in such phenomenal numbers illustrates weaknesses inherent in the RHDP and underlying party structures. The ruling coalition seems not to have learned from a similar attempt to impose leaders on constituents in the 2013 local elections. This top-down approach to party management is likely to become increasingly hard to sustain as 2020 approaches.
  • Women gain no ground. Despite the new constitution’s emphasis on gender parity, women were only 12% of the candidates in 2016 and won 29 seats, basically holding steady in their parliamentary presence at 11%. The barriers women face to getting on the ballot are compounded by the same opaque party and coalition nomination processes that gave rise to this year’s unprecedented numbers of independents.

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