Côte d'Ivoire presidential election: beyond Alassane Ouattara's victory

President Ouattara has just begun his second and final term in office, but the 2015 election showed that Côte d'Ivoire’s quest for reconciliation is still far from over.

After a landslide victory in Côte d’Ivoire’s recent presidential election, Alassane Ouattara was sworn in for a second term on Tuesday, 3 November. The organisation and outcome of the election happened in a peaceful way, but this does not necessarily make it a democratic success story, and several key observations must be made.

The first is the turnout rate, which stood at 52.86% – a sharp decline from the 2010 presidential election, which saw over 80% of voters making their mark in the two rounds. Two factors might explain this.

In terms of what was at stake, the contexts around the two elections were completely different. The 2010 poll was a major turning point for Côte d’Ivoire, occurring as the country was emerging from a decade-long politico-military crisis. It saw three main opponents – Laurent Gbagbo, Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara – all of whom enjoyed relatively similar political standing, vying for power. In the 2015 election, however, the absence of an opponent with an electoral base capable of competing with Ouattara removed any suspense regarding the outcome.

Voter apathy can also be explained by the fragmentation of the opposition into two camps; one in favour of participating in the electoral process, and the other choosing to boycott it. Many Ivorians therefore felt that the die had already been cast.

The Ivorian election was peaceful, but not necessarily a democratic success

The second key observation concerns the election result, with Ouattara winning with a landslide 83.66% of the ballots. 

In addition to the lack of a strong competitor, other elements can also explain this result. During his first term in office, Alassane Ouattara succeeded in growing Côte d’Ivoire’s economy, and benefited from the support of a broad coalition, the Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (the Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace, RHDP).

Furthermore, as mentioned above, the opposition – centred on two main political groupings, namely the Alliance des forces démocratiques (Alliance of Democratic Forces, AFD) and the Coalition nationale pour le changement (National Coalition for Change, CNC) – was divided and lacked cohesion. This fragmentation diluted opposition votes and ultimately gave the incumbent president a leg-up to victory.

Just a few days before the election, three well-known candidates withdrew from the process – former minister of foreign affairs, Amara Essy; former president of the National Assembly, Mamadou Koulibaly; and former prime minister Charles Konan Banny. This left the field wide open for the incumbent president to be re-elected.

The third observation pertains to the decline of the Front populaire ivoirien (Ivorian Popular Front, FPI). The party won 9.29% of the ballots – a massive drop from the 45.9% they had won in the second round of the 2010 presidential election. This is a reflection of the deep divisions that exist within the party, which were caused by the absence of its founder, Laurent Gbagbo, whose trial before the International Criminal Court is scheduled to start on 28 January next year.

The split within the FPI occurred when Affi N’Guessan had the judiciary nullify Gbagbo's attempts to lead the party in December 2014. In April this year, the court acknowledged N’Guessan as the legal FPI leader.

A fragmented opposition ultimately gave Ouattara a leg-up to victory

N’Guessan’s faction advocated for the party’s participation in the elections. The other wing, led by Aboudramane Sangaré, suspected N’Guessan of siding with the government. In August, the Sangaré camp called for a boycott of the elections, which it considered unfair. It demanded that political prisoners, including Gbagbo, first be released.

The low turnout rate was also recorded in traditional FPI strongholds, such as Agneby-Tiassa, Gôh, Cavally and the district of Abidjan. The average turnout here was 44.84% in 2015 – a significant decrease from 84.09% in 2010. This is part of a general nationwise trend, however, and should not therefore be viewed only in light of Sangaré’s call for a boycott.

The poll results and participation rate provide some insight into the balance of power between the two wings of the FPI. Except for the region of Moronou, where N’Guessan won 54.06% of votes, he seems to have failed to counteract the call for a boycott. The decline can also be explained by the scepticism of some of FPI militants towards N’Guessan’s persona.

Although difficult to quantify, the possibility that some FPI voters who supported Gbagbo in 2010 might have subsequently switched to the RHDP cannot be ignored.

Finally, the 2015 presidential election shows that national reconciliation remains a challenge. If anything, voter turnout and behaviour showed that Ivorians remain deeply divided. Ouattara received the highest scores in his traditional support bases in the north. Conversely, the southern regions, considered to be Gbagbo strongholds (and by extension, those of the FPI), recorded a high abstention rate, estimated at around 50%.

The election showed that Ivorians remain deeply divided

In addition, turnout in Abidjan, the economic capital and most cosmopolitan city, was 43.58% – well below the national average. These figures again raise the question of national unity, and more specifically of national reconciliation. In a context still defined by socio-political divisions, it is difficult to separate issues around justice, inclusive economic growth and constitutional reform from those around reconciliation.

The justice system is perceived to be biased, and efforts should be made to change such views. Economic growth, which has been 7% and higher on average since 2012, should be inclusive in the coming five years. Finally, on the question of reform, the upcoming revision of the constitution should help resolve the thorny issue of Article 35, which pertains to eligibility to compete in presidential elections.

As highlighted in the latest ISS West Africa Report, these observations show once again that a peaceful outcome does not necessarily mean the process can be described as a democratic success. In the medium and long term, stability in Côte d’Ivoire remains a challenge. As Ouattara begins his second and final term in office, he must seize this opportunity to reconcile the Ivorian political class and must undertake the necessary structural reforms to consolidate peace.

Ibrahim Maïga, Junior Researcher, Ella Abatan, Junior Fellow and Armande Jeanine Kobi, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

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