Côte d’Ivoire: not quite reconciliation, but inclusion supports positive economic outlook

Ivoirian political parties are headed into a season of leadership congresses in which they will select electoral candidates and policy platforms, all aimed to secure victory in the country’s presidential election due on October 21, 2020. Presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire can be a flashpoint for ethnonationalist conflict, however, the West African country’s principal political parties are positioning themselves based on macroeconomic promise and demographic persuasion, as opposed to the derisory and inflammatory ethnic-based exclusion of year’s past.

Alliances are being sought-after, but at this point, Côte d’Ivoire electoral politics are still in a state of fluidity. The incumbent party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), led by President Alassane Ouattara, is positioning itself as the natural successor to the style and substance of the country’s founding father, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (who served as president from independence in 1960 until his natural death in 1993), who united the country’s diverse ethnic constituencies and governed over a sustained era of development and expansion such that Côte d’Ivoire rivaled Nigeria for geopolitical prominence in the West African sub-region. 

Ouattara himself is not likely to stand for reelection in 2020, following the completion of two presidential terms that began in 2010. The RHDP has not yet designated a candidate to succeed him, and several prominent ruling party figures, such as Minister of Defense Hamed Bakayoko, are believed conducting quiet campaigns to promote their leadership interest. The RHDP will convene a constitutive congress on January 26 to consolidate party directionality.

No matter its advantages as the incumbent party and for having stabilized Côte d’Ivoire following the country’s 2010-2011 civil war, the RHDP has seen the alliance structure that empowered it to electoral success in 2010 fracture. The former ruling party the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (the same party that Houphouët-Boigny led), broke from the RHDP in 2018 to reestablish itself as a stand-alone contender to govern over the West African country. PDCI party leader Henri Konan Bédié, who served as Ivoirian president following Houphouët-Boigny’s death until being overthrown by a military junta in 1999, is guiding the opposition party back to national government contention. It is not clear, though, whether the 84-year-old former president will himself contest for the presidency in 2020. The PDCI has several prominent officials of its own who have served in senior capacities in Ouattara governments, but so far Bédié, from his headquarters in the eastern-central town of Daoukro, is keeping a tight grip on the party’s directionality. 

The third of three Côte d’Ivoire political parties to have governed the country is also trying to restore itself to leadership contention. The Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI), led principally by former President Laurent Gbagbo – who remains in detention held by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for crimes committed during the violent final days of his 2000-2010 rule – is guiding the party’s deliberations despite his ongoing trial, though his appeals may see him provisionally released or even acquitted, if his legal filings are successful. 

A fourth credible Ivoirian political force, at this stage a nascent movement as opposed to a concrete party, is led by Speaker of the National Assembly Guillaume Soro. At least two political movements, one the Rassemblement for Côte d’Ivoire (RACI), the other the Union of Soroists (UDS), support Soro – a very experienced and ambitious 46-year-old former student leader, former rebel commander, and former prime minister as well as defense minister – for the presidency. Soro has not yet committed to a particular political platform, and, rather, spends more time abroad than at home. In any case, Soro is being personally appealed to in equal measure by Ouattara, Bédié, and Gbagbo to join in an alliance to win in 2020. Gaining Soro’s political supporters could make the difference in the 2020 election scenario between the RHDP, PDCI and FPI as each maneuver to expand their vote base beyond their historic ethnopolitical constituencies. 

To be sure the Ivoirian campaign season is only heating up, but it is significant to note that the three principal political parties are focused not merely to defend their established voter bases (the northerner vote in the case of the RHDP; the southwestern vote for the FPI, and the central-eastern vote for PDCI) but in building cross-party coalitions, with variations including RHDP and PDCI, RHDP and Soro’s RACI, PDCI and FPI, PDCI and RACI, and FPI and RACI. In other words, neither the RHDP, PDCI, nor the FPI is inflaming ethnonationalist sentiment or discontent in order to secure electoral advantage.

The electoral campaign focus instead on opportunity and inclusion – though not quite reconciliation – means that the risk of political violence, while rising, is constrained to a sub-strategic level, rather than the scale of civil war the country knew throughout the 2000s. A focus on persuasive and inclusive political campaigning, rather than ethnic-based exclusion, means the Ivoirian economy can continue to expand at the fast pace of gross domestic product growth it has enjoyed for the last several years. Not only will Eurobond holders benefit from an economy unaffected by electoral politics, but foreign consumers of Côte d’Ivoire’s robust cocoa bean industry will appreciate no interruption to satisfying their sweet tooth.  

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