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North-south divide likely to dominate presidential run-off

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2010-12-03

First-round results from Ivory Coast's Oct. 31 presidential poll have set up a run-off between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara, a contest that is expected to stoke regional tensions that have plagued the country for years.

Ivorians woke up to the news that incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and northern rival Alassane Ouattara will face off for the country’s presidency in a run-off poll later this month, in a contest that is almost certain to stir up the geographic and ethnic rivalries that plunged the country into its current political crisis.

On Thursday the country’s Independent Election Commission announced that Gbagbo won 38.3 percent of the votes cast in Sunday's presidential election and former prime minister Ouattara had just over 32 percent.

Former president Henri Konan Bedie, with 25.24 percent of votes, has alleged ballot tampering. “Bedie is crying foul and says he wants a full recount. The constitutional council has seven days to decide,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Francois Picard reported from Ivory Coast's economic capital of Abidjan.

While running as separate candidates in Sunday's poll, Ouattara and Bedie have forged a political alliance, but some observers doubt that the two camps can genuinely live up to their partnership. “The big question is, will Bedie’s supporters vote for a northerner?” Picard added.

Bedie's support came from the centre of the country, particularly the capital Yamoussoukro.

“If you talk to Bedie’s supporters and his political entourage you realise they will not automatically run to help Ouattara,” said Vincent Hugeux, a journalist at the French weekly magazine L’Express. “A profound contempt for the people of the north remains.”

Sunday’s election was the first time the three major players of Ivory Coast’s political scene squared off in an election that was hailed for record turnout, and so far, for its peaceful course.

“The concerns for future violence are not unfounded. The run-off will be hot, if not scorching,” Hugeux told FRANCE 24.

Thursday’s first-round results are provisional and must be validated by the country's constitutional council. The run-off is likely to be scheduled for November 28.

A deep-seated rivalry

President Gbagbo came to power in a 2000 election from which Bedie and Ouattara were excluded, and survived a coup attempt two years later that escalated into a full-scale civil war.

The conflict also divided the country between Gbagbo's government-controlled south and the north held by former New Forces rebels, with UN and French peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone between them. 

“A long and deep-seated rivalry divides Gbagbo and Ouattara,” explains Hugeux.

“Gbagbo has never forgiven Ouattara for, if not approving, outright ordering his imprisonment when [Ouattara] was prime minister. Gbagbo also considers Ouattara the instigator and financial backer of the 2002 rebellion.

“For his part, Ouattara views the election as vindication for the injustice he suffered when he was evicted from the political landscape,” Hugeux adds. In 2000 Ouattara was barred from running in the presidential election because he was accused of being a foreigner.

The threat of 'Ivorian identity'

During the first round of the elections the Ivorian candidates steered clear of the question of Ivorian identity, or “Ivorianness”, a deeply divisive issue that appeared on the political scene during the 1990s, and in part instigated the 2002-2003 civil war.

Populist politicians stoked the issue of “Ivorianness", pitting southerners against the “foreigners” from the north. While some northerners were children of immigrants from neighbouring countries who were attracted by the cocoa-fuelled Ivorian economic miracle, others were just northern Ivorians with foreign-sounding names.

According to Hugeux, the temptation by Gbagbo to revive the Ivorian identity debate will weigh heavily in the election run-off, even if the president is favoured to win.

“It’s clear that if he want to surpass the north-south antagonism, if he wants to be remembered as the man who reunited Ivory Coast, he needs to transcend that temptation,” Hugeux says. “The real challenge of the next president, whether [it be] Ouattara or Gbagbo, is to reconcile a country whose unity only exists on paper.”

Date created : 2010-11-04


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