It’s exactly a year since the first round of Ivory Coast’s long-delayed presidential election. To commemorate, I’m going to try and write a series of reflections over the next month looking back on that turbulent electoral period.
Democracy, as Africans have realised since the wave of multi-party politics from the early 1990s, is about more than casting a vote on election day. You could hardly describe Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon as democratic examples, even if there are regular elections with multiple candidates. Elections are to democracy what a wedding is to a marriage, as one Ugandan MP once put it on the BBC.
For all the advances made in the 2010 election, Ivory Coast’s most democratic ever held, a major opportunity was missed in the acceptance of democratic defeat. Despite public praise of democracy (cf. the title of Laurent Gbagbo’s last book), no major politician in Ivorian history has accepted that they lost a presidential election. Let’s look at things in review:
1990 – Ivory Coast’s first multiparty election, in which Felix Houphouet-Boigny was opposed by Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo officially received 20% of the vote but said in a recent interview that he’d won.
1995 – Ouattara and Gbagbo engaged in an active boycott of the election, leaving Bedie to win an election rigged in his favour.
2000 – incumbent military leader, General Guei, refused to accept a Gbagbo victory that seemed on the cards as counting progressed. He disputes the results, and is chased off in a popular protest.
2010 – the first round sees Bedie eliminated as the third place candidate. He says he didn’t lose, but agrees not to make too much noise and throws his support behind Ouattara. In the second round, both candidates say they won.
So, no-one has yet given the historical example of honourable defeat. The problem of course is that elections are moments when populations send messages to those in power, not just vice-a-versa. A football team that refused to accept defeat would never think of changing the manager, the formation or bringing in some new people. And so, following the 2010 election, there’s been no real debate, at least publicly. How for instance the PDCI fail to capitalise on nostalgia for the Houphouet-Boigny years and their reputation as the peaceful party? Were they right to run with Bedie as candidate? For the Gbagbo camp, there seems to have been very little internal searching about what went wrong; how a party in power for ten years with incredible resources at its disposal and a charismatic leader could fail to win. Instead, the refrain, as it has always been up to this point in Ivorian politics, has been ‘we didn’t lose’. And so an opportunity is lost for the country to cement a democratic culture and for a party to learn from past mistakes.