Once again Cote d'Ivoire will not hold the much-anticipated presidential elections planned for November 29. As days go by, it is becoming a certainty. On previous occasions, it was said that financial difficulties hampered the holding of these elections. This time around the "reality on the ground" is evoked as justification for another delay. Though the electoral commission has not made any public declaration on the matter, reaction from various centres of power in the country clearly points to the impossibility of the elections being held this year.
It started with the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) leaders and specifically the First Lady, Simon Gbagbo and the President of the Social and Economic Council, Laurent Dona Fologo whose declarations last week dashed the hopes of the citizens to see the beginning of the end to the no-war-no-peace situation that has become the main feature of the socio-political landscape of Cote d'Ivoire. Forces Nouvelles (FN) leaders followed suit. From both sides, the argument is strangely the same: the reality on the ground could not allow for free and fair electoral process.
If the postponement is not a surprise and will certainly have some implications for the normalization of the country's socio-political landscape, it however comes at a time tensions are mounting on some critical issues that could undermine the fragile gains realized so far. Among the key challenges that continue to undermine the process, one could include the contentious voter registration process, the rearmament of both the rebels and the government forces, in addition to their mutual reluctance to complete the Disarmement Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) prior to the elections and considerable delay in the logistical preparations. Rarely has an electoral process taken so long, cost that much (estimated cost of 115 billion CFA) and held potential risk of all-out war in West Africa.
The voter registration remains a highly contentious issue, not only because of the delays accumulated in its final publication, but also its credibility and political sensitivity. While Ivorian political actors and the UN praised the identification process that registered 6.5 million people, they could not anticipate that 2.7 million voters could face once again the spectre of contested identity. Speculations are now rife with regard to the origin of these citizens and their probable exclusion from the electoral process. It is not clear whether this is a deliberate attempt to eliminate "unfavorable voters" by either candidate in the competition. However, one could not exclude the fact that some actors might seek to control this process to guarantee an outright victory in the first round. Though the numerous opinions polls done by the French company SOFRES placed Laurent Gbagbo ahead with 40 percent of the vote in the first round, there are doubts that he could make it in the run-off particularly if his opponents Allasane Ouattara (28 percent) and Henri-Konan Bedie (30 percent) keep the pact they sign to back each other in the event of a second round. The president of the National Assembly, Mamadou Coulibaly's call that the issue of 2.7 million allegedly non-Ivorians should not be used as a delay tactic and that they should be reversed on the electoral list and allowed to cast their vote for the sake of national unity and peace, is not likely to be heed.
The contention around the voter registration is even heightened by a recent communiqué from the Constitutional Council headed by the recently appointed ruling Front Populaire Ivoirien hardliner Yao Paul N'dre that lists a number of conditions for candidates to be eligible after the electoral commission has approved all applications. Candidates are required to provide within eight days (10 November 2009) their birth certificate and tax certificate in conformity with the contested 2000 constitution provisions. In a tense political environment, such requirement is interpreted by the opposition as a violation of the Linas-Marcousis, the Pretoria agreements and other decrees signed by President Gbagbo himself that made special provisions for all candidates to be eligible. While the President of the Constitutional Council argues that his institution has to uphold the constitution that excluded Allassane Ouattara from the previous presidential race and played a key role in the outbreak of the armed conflict, there are concerns that the current decision contradicts the consensus reached with various political arrangements and is likely to re-open old and painful wounds.
It is hard to comprehend why the Constitutional Council has to change the rules of the game while Cote d'Ivoire is so close to a breakthrough. It is hard to find a clear justification for these additional conditionalities to validate the candidacies of the Republicans Rally (RDR) leader Ouattara and the Democratic Party of Cote D'Ivoire (PDCI) flagbearer Bedie. Unless of cource the ruling party has lost confidence in the electoral process together with the peace process and has decided to resort to exclusion methods or violence to maintain its control over the country. Local media constantly reported that the Ivorian peace process hangs in the balance and predicted that events in November are likely to "endanger" the process. They warned that President Gbagbo has activated "his repressive machine" and put the national police units on alert to pre-empt any eventual coup.
The postponement of the election, if confirmed by the Electoral Commission, will come at the time the UN also expresses deep concerns over the security environment in Cote d'Ivoire. A recent UN report accuses both the ruling party (FPI) and the rebels (FN) of rearming. The report indicates that diamond and other natural resources continue to be used to purchase weapons. While this is not new, it however underscores the need to pay attention to the pre-election environment and tackle some of the signs that might lead to renewed widespread violence if the electoral results are not accepted by all parties. The fact that Cote d'Ivoire will hold elections without a completed DDR process according to the Ouagadougou Agreement IV is already a risk for a peaceful electoral and post-electoral context. It has been said that rebels are reluctant to disarm as this could weaken their bargaining power in the post-electoral dispensation. The firm attitude of the UN, through the renewal of target sanctions on Ivorian leaders and arms embargo, albeit not enough, should be seen as encouraging. The world organization wants to send a clear message to political actors in the country and call upon them to seriously show willingness to end the conflict. There is a need to tighten the UN oversight of the electoral process and monitoring mechanisms. With the political crises Niger and Guinea the security situation in West Africa is volatile and the key mediator, President Blaise Compaore looks overwhelmed with his involvement in Togo, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.
Finally, even though the voter registration is not delayed and manipulated, it is highly unlikely that the electoral commission could put in place in less than a month the national logistical structures required for a credible electoral process. If funding is no longer an excuse, political obstacles are to blame. The training of the electoral staff, the printing of the ballot papers and the setting of the polling stations among others require time. While waiting for the official new date for the elections, one would like to hope that political actors in Cote d'Ivoire would take into account the long suffering of their citizens and work towards the legitimization of the leadership as a step towards the reconstruction of the former beacon of peace in West Africa. This could be a powerful statement of political will. It could also be seen as the reversal of the perpetuation of the status quo characterised by a consolidated war economy that benefits a few at the expenses of the vast majority in a highly polarised and fragile Cote d'Ivoire. Though the presidential elections could not be seen as a panacea for Cote d'Ivoire's woes, they are critical for the return of a legitimate leadership and peace consolidation efforts.
Written by: David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Pretoria