ABIDJAN — Ivory Coast is holding local elections Sunday, marking the first time the government has organized a vote since a disputed presidential contest in 2010 plunged the country into violence. The party of former president Laurent Gbagbo has decided to boycott, turning the race into a showdown between parties in the current governing coalition.
In front of a pharmacy at a busy intersection in Abidjan’s Yopougon district, women sing as they await the start of a rally on the final day of campaigning before Sunday’s vote. They are supporters of Kafana Kone, a former government minister who is one of 659 candidates on the ballot for municipal positions. An additional 84 people are running for regional positions.
The elections represent the last phase of a cycle that began in 2010 with a disputed presidential vote that brought the West African nation to the brink of civil war. The United Nations estimates that at least 3,000 people died in five months of fighting after former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to the winner, current President Alassane Ouattara.
Gbagbo’s political party, the Ivorian Popular Front, boycotted U.N.-organized legislative elections that were held in late 2011, and it is also boycotting the local elections Sunday. But Kone told VOA he did not think this would render the process illegitimate.
He says, “Legitimacy doesn’t come from the political actors. Legitimacy comes from the people. The fact that an actor doesn’t participate, that doesn’t mean that development stops.”
With the FPI out of the running, the race is a showdown between President Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party and the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, headed by former president Henri Konan Bedie. Bedie’s support helped Ouattara win the 2010 election, and the PDCI is a member of the governing coalition.
A dispute between lawmakers from the two parties was blamed for President Ouattara’s decision to dissolve his Cabinet back in November. But Rinaldo Depagne, senior West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, said both parties had an interest in keeping the coalition intact.
He also said that for this election, most issues that might showcase differences between the two camps - including how to resolve longstanding land conflicts in the west - were not part of the debate in the run-up to the vote
"They need each other to rule. The RDR can’t rule, nobody can rule in this country without the support of another big party. They are obliged to live together. And so far, the big issues are not on the table," he said.
The country’s U.N. peacekeeping mission said Friday that the campaign had been one of “animated discussions,” but that there had been some “regrettable incidents,” including acts of intimidation. The chief spokesman for Ouattara’s RDR party also warned earlier in the week of “increasing tension.”
In Yopougon, however, voters said the atmosphere was hardly combative. Thirty-six-year-old Juvenal Coulibaly, who trades electronic devices in the district, said the FPI’s decision to boycott had lowered tension considerably.
"This is an election between two brothers," he said. "If the FPI were participating, it would be a real election with a charged atmosphere, but the two parties that are here are brothers, so it’s not a real battle."
Municipal elections in Ivory Coast were last held in 2001, while regional elections were last held in 2002.