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Côte d’Ivoire’s Senate Elections: The Next Move on the 2020 Elections Chessboard

This is a guest post by Lindsay Robinson, Senior Program Officer at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Washington, DC

Many aspects of Côte d’Ivoire’s March 26, 2018 senate elections were surprising, from the results to the decision to swear in only two-thirds of the body. Many Ivoirians were surprised that the polls even took place at all. The elections put in place the country’s first-ever senate; the institution was introduced in the new 2016 constitution. It was one of the more controversial provisions of the document, with the opposition claiming that there was no need for an expensive (“budgetivore”) new senate and claiming that the mode of selection gave the president far too much power over the legislative process — only two-thirds of 99 senators are elected and the remaining 33 are chosen by the president. However, the National Assembly still takes “precedence” over the Senate, as it can pass legislation on its own if the two chambers cannot reach an agreement.

The Senate’s main role is to counterbalance the Assembly’s constituency-focused members, as senators are beholden to constituents at a regional level — senators (at least 66 of them) are elected indirectly by regional and local councilors. The remaining, appointed senators are intended to be chosen from among underrepresented constituencies. For example, activists promoting women’s political participation have called on President Alassane Ouattara to appoint women to these seats.

No one expected these elections. Côte d’Ivoire’s new Constitution stipulated that any first cohort of senators would be elected only through 2020, at which time fresh elections would be called along with the next National Assembly elections. Article 90 states that an “organic law” will outline the Senate’s membership, eligibility criteria, and election procedures; this type of law is passed by the National Assembly. When no law was passed in the year after the constitution’s promulgation, many Ivoirian analysts assumed that the elections would not be called until 2020, thus avoiding a short two-year term. It therefore came as a surprise to many when on February 14 President Ouattara issued an executive order that served the same purpose as the “organic law” but without being passed through the legislature, followed a week later by an announcement of the election date. The administration justified the urgency by pointing to the constitution’s requirement that the senate be seated seven days after the start of the National Assembly’s first annual session, which in 2018 fell on April 2. But it is unclear why there was not similar urgency ahead of the 2017 session.

No candidates or voters from the opposition participated. The opposition contested the government’s reasoning. They had counted on participating in local elections in mid-2018 and winning enough seats on local and regional councils to influence the outcome of the Senate’s indirect races. Instead, the voters in the March senate elections were the local and regional councilors whose mandates expire in April 2018, and who were elected in 2013 local elections that the opposition boycotted. Thus there were no voters in this election from the country’s main opposition parties.

Furthermore, the opposition has been increasingly vocal about its lack of confidence in the independent electoral commission (CEI) and called for a new dialogue and consensus about its composition. The president of the main opposition party the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI), Affi N’Guessan, deplored that “today the governance in our country is the product of illegitimate institutions that have come from an illegitimate CEI.” Opposition parties refuse to acknowledge the validity of any elections (including this Senate race) that the CEI organizes with its current composition, which between the RHDP and the government is controlled by partisans of the majority. The African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights found in November 2016 that the composition was not in conformity with the country’s international commitments to create an impartial body and ordered it be reviewed within a year, which has yet to happen. The lack of both opposition voters and candidates paved the way for an overwhelming victory by the ruling coalition, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), which took 50 of the 66 seats up for election.

The RHDP ran unopposed by a competing party — but it still lost nearly a quarter of the seats to independent candidates. These were not political newcomers — the independents almost all come from the ruling coalition. There were major upsets in Côte d’Ivoire’s political capital  Yamoussoukro, where a member of the Rally for Republicans (RDR, President Ouattara’s party) and of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI, the second-largest coalition member) ran together as independents and won against the list presented by the RHDP. In Bouaké, the country’s second most populous city, PDCI members did the same. This echoes the National Assembly elections in 2016, when more than a third of all elected legislators had run as independents. At the root of this  phenomenon is an Abidjan-based candidate selection process that leaves many locally popular candidates sidelined. As happened in the National Assembly, the elected “independents” are likely to retake their party names and join the RHDP for votes.

Only 8 women were elected despite the new constitution’s call for greater women’s political participation. It is somewhat ironic that the ruling coalition that paved the way for the 30% gender quota law that will soon be introduced into the legislature only presented 8 female candidates out of 66 (or 12% of its candidates).

RHDP leadership is uncertain ahead of landmark 2020 elections. So why did President Ouattara proceed with the senatorial elections at this time? The indirect nature of the Senate elections means there is little benefit to be had from electing senators now so that they might have incumbent advantage in the 2020 elections. The impact on the president’s legislative agenda of having a friendly senate will also be fairly minimal; the National Assembly will retain primacy in passing legislation.

Instead, the reasons for this move likely have to do with the president’s plans for the RHDP coalition ahead of the 2020 elections. The RDR and PDCI, as well as a faction of RHDP headed by the National Assembly President Guillaume Soro, are vying to control who will select the coalition’s presidential candidate in 2020. Soro has clear ambitions for the post, while the PDCI believes it is “their turn” to provide the nominee after Ouattara’s (RDR’s) two terms. Meanwhile, Ouattara professes to want a unified party that presents its best candidate, regardless of party origin — although there are a number of RDR members he likely thinks fit the bill.

The Senate helps President Ouattara on a number of fronts in this battle over succession. It is a counterbalance to the politically powerful Soro, who no longer speaks for the entire legislative branch. President Ouattara’s close ally Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio was elected unanimously as Senate president. Ahoussou also comes from PDCI, which helps improve relations there. Ouattara also has an opportunity to nominate 33 individuals and turn potential rivals into allies; he chose not to appoint these senators before the senate opened, justifying the delay by a desire to provide only elected senators a say in the leadership election. These seats can be powerful “carrots” in the effort to create a unified party.