Ivory Coast's Disputed Presidential Election

  • Share
  • Read Later
Thierry Gouegnon / Reuters (2)

The U.N. says Alassane Ouattara, left, won Ivory Coast's presidential election, but the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, right, won't relinquish power

Once famed for its Parisian-style boulevards, glass-clad skyscrapers and fashionable shops, Ivory Coast was formerly West Africa's brightest economic star. Laurent Gbagbo, President for over 10 years, has long waxed lyrical about rebuilding the Ivorian miracle that has slowly but surely crumbled over the past decade. But his attempts to hold on to power at all costs may leave him isolated and take him even further away from that goal.

Almost a week after Ivory Coast's first presidential poll in a decade, it is still not certain who the country's President is. Two hopefuls — the incumbent, Gbagbo, and the challenger, Alassane Ouattara — claim they've won. They took parallel oaths of office and are setting up parallel Cabinets. Ivorians had high hopes that the election could reunite the bitterly divided nation, but instead, it has simply brought the divisions that threw the nation's 2002 armed uprising into sharp relief.

The 2002 rebellion left the northern half of the country, where Ouattara is from, under the rebel Forces Nouvelles, while the south was controlled by the Gbagbo-led government. Trouble erupted after a tense three-day wait for election results. When an electoral-commission spokesperson, Bamba Yacouba, prepared to read partial results, a pro-Gbagbo representative tore the papers from his hand and crumpled them. With soldiers surrounding the electoral-commission office, the next time the commission tried to read out the results it had to do so in Abidjan's 1970s-style Golf Hotel, which was heavily guarded by U.N. peacekeepers. Ouattara was declared winner with 54.1% of the vote. Within a day, the Constitutional Council, headed by a staunch Gbagbo ally, invalidated the result, saying that votes in seven pro-Gbagbo northern regions had been rigged by rebels. He declared Gbagbo the winner.

Many disagree. The rebels, who control the territory where several hundred thousand votes were cancelled, rejected the results and look highly unlikely to relinquish their territory and allow the country to be reunified. In a bold move for the usually timid U.N., its special representative for Ivory Coast, Choi Young Jin, declared Ouattara the winner. Choi said his copies of the results from almost all polling stations gave the opposition leader a clear win. U.S. President Barack Obama led calls for Gbagbo to admit defeat, and he telephoned Ouattara to congratulate him. Much of the criticisms stem from frustration that foreign states poured an estimated $400 million into an election that Gbagbo appears to have simply scuppered because the result didn't suit him. Gbagbo, though, seems unmoved by foreign criticism. In an unapologetic inauguration speech, he accused the international community of "meddling" in sovereign affairs.

Meanwhile, he is tightening his grip on the territory. In the south, state TV tirelessly looped images of Gbagbo's swearing-in and his supporters filling the streets. Text messaging was blocked, foreign news stations that had reported Ouattara's win were taken off air, and the country's borders were sealed. Still, the violent backlash that many had feared has not yet happened, partly because the military has promised to be ruthless with demonstrators — and promptly proved it by shooting dead four people outside an Ouattara office in Abidjan on Wednesday. However, protesters burned tires in the streets as plumes of smoke rose above several Abidjan neighborhoods Monday.

Condemnation by African leaders from both the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union (A.U.) will undermine Gbagbo's attempt to paint foreign intervention as Western neocolonialism. The A.U. has sent former South African President Thabo Mbeki to try to mediate, though neither side appears willing to budge just yet. It's obviously very serious," Mbeki told reporters after meeting Gbagbo at the presidential residence in Abidjan. "Among other things, it's important not to have violence, not to return to war and so on, to find a peaceful solution."

The International Monetary Fund — which is poised to cancel $3 billion of debt under its Highly Indebted Poor Countries scheme — says it won't work with a government the U.N. doesn't recognize. Gbagbo might have turned overnight from an accepted — or at least tolerated — leader to an international pariah, but the international community may be powerless to impose itself on a man who still controls at least 46% of the electorate. For now, it remains to be seen whether the election will close the chapter on a turbulent decade or simply bring a new twist to an old crisis.