Côte d’Ivoire Votes: What is At Stake One Year Later

One year after the presidential election that caused the country to descend into chaos, Côte d’Ivoire held its first parliamentary election since 2000 yesterday, Sunday December 11. Media reports concur on a few points: voter turn-out was low and the election was generally peaceful, in spite of the boycott by pro-Gbagbo supporters.

The low turnout on Sunday can perhaps be explained in part because of the raw memories of the 2010 vote, and in part because of a generally apathetic view towards parliamentary elections, according to the National Electoral Commission Chair, Youssouf Bakayoko. BBC correspondent John James suggests that a combination of these elements, as well as the fact that the parliamentary assembly has limited powers, can explain the low level of participation. Because of the boycott by the pro-Gbagbo opposition party, most of the 1,000+ candidates hail from the governing party coalition, leaving little room for genuine choice in the ballot box.

Since Alassane Ouattara came to power last spring, he declared that legislative elections would be held in December – with or without Gbagbo’s opposition party – and, indeed, he has kept his word. As with the recent presidential election in Liberia, the lack of opposition participation weakens the democratic nature of the vote, as well as the mandate of those elected. A boycott in a parliamentary election, however, is likely less damaging for Ouattara. The fact that these elections were held, as originally planned, plays in his favor.

While the parliamentary elections have been hailed by Ouattara and the UN as a “step toward reconciliation”, it remains to be seen how Gbagbo supporters will react to the official announcement of the results on December 18th. As suggested by reports from Al Jazeera, Gbagbo supporters still have major grievances that remain unaddressed. The boycott itself, both by Gbagbo’s party and by his supporters who did not cast their ballot, suggests that much still needs to be done to ensure that tensions between different factions are not rekindled.

As Laurent Gbagbo’s trial in The Hague unfolds under the auspices of the International Criminal Court, it will be important to observe the repercussions in Côte d’Ivoire. Furthermore, the legitimacy and democratic nature of Ouattara’s government will continue to be tested in 2012. The parliamentary election will very likely hand Ouattara a good amount of legislative power, with a probable majority. How Ouattara will wield this power, and whether opposition parties, news media and individuals will be given the freedom and political space they need to operate and share their views, remains to be seen.