The presidential elections are less than 2 weeks away here in Cote D’Ivoire. Massive billboards began lining the highways advertising the three main candidates since campaigning began on October 15th. On the boulevard and bridge crossing the lagoon in Abidjan wave the blue, pink and white flags of current leader Gbagbo’s newly formed La Majorite Presidentielle (the Presidential Majority) party. Cell phones are bombarded with texts exclaiming the virtues of each candidate, and the papers are awash with stories of the presidential hopefuls. The police seem to be out in full force, with increased roadblocks and checkpoints.
What a choice to make.
The candidate most likely to “win” is former history professor Laurent Gbagbo, who has recently polled at around 46% of the popular vote. Gbagbo has been in the presidential role for most of the last decade and despite a constitutional rule that one can only be elected president for two five-year terms, Gbagbo is able to circumvent the constitution since he has never actually been elected to that role. Following a successful 1999 coup planned by General Robert Guei, which resulted in the overthrow of one of the other current presidential candidates, Henri Bedie, Gbagbo ran for the Presidency. According to his followers Gbagbo received some nearly 60% of the vote in that election, however Guei claimed victory and violence ensued. Gbagbo’s FPI (Ivorian Popular Front) revolted in the streets, forcing Guei to flee and allowing Gbagbo to seize power. He has remained there ever since. In an attempt to separate himself from the past violence of the FPI, Gbagbo now runs under the Majorite Presidentielle name.
We are told that Gbagbo is “L’homme de la situation” (the man for the job), even though his last ten years in office have been marred by corruption, civil war, elections stalling and political posturing, and that he has previously been jailed for inciting public violence. A 2002 coup attempt against Gbagbo resulted in a fracturing of the state into north and south divisions and the arrangement of a new temporary unity government, which was to remain in place until a 2005 election could be held. The election was repeatedly delayed, primarily it was reported because of the stalled disarmament of the northern rebels and lack of identity cards for voters, but many suspected that Gbagbo was determined to keep his place for as long as possible by stalling. The stalling worked for over 5 years.
Alassane Ouattara, a former economist with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), is the President of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) and was the Prime Minister during the Presidency of much loved first President Houphouet-Boigny. Following Houphouet-Boigny’s death, Henri Bedie (another Presidential hopeful) and Outtara battled it out for Presidency, with Bedie prevailing. Ouattara is often associated with the rebels of the north, where his base and primary support system lies, and is often suspected of inciting rebellion among the northerners. During his time as PM, Ouattara cut subsidies to farmers (as recommended by the WTO) while EU and US farmers were receiving heavy subsidies, and on IMF recommendation dismissed more than 10,000 state employees, reduced the salaries of the remaining state employees by 40%, eliminated transportation and basic health care services for students, imposed fees for basic health care services, initiated the devaluation of the currency, aggressively pursued taxes from Lebanese and Mauritian merchants, and allegedly sold off state-owned property to his wife’s clients and friends at severely devalued prices, angering students and workers, including Gbagbo, into rebellion. Rumor circulates that while Ouattara filled in for the ailing President Houphouet-Boigny, millions of dollars from the state treasury mysteriously disappeared, allowing Ouattara to amass one of the largest fortunes on earth. Some rumors suggest that he has strong ties to the Jewish lobby, even going so far as to claim that his wife is a MOSSAD agent, to the fear of many Lebanese merchants and industrialists in the region (who make up some 2% of the population and own a large percentage of industry).
Henri Bedie is a former President (1993-99) and leader of the Democratic Party of Cote D’Ivoire- African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA), who now ironically claims he will unite the country from its fractions, lower taxes and restore the economy. Under Bedie, the government began its xenophobic Ivorite (or pure Ivorianess) citizenship policies in an attempt to politically exclude his competition Ouattara from the Presidency for being the son of Burkinabe parents. The policies effectively resulted in many people from the north of the country being denied of national identity papers, passports or being harassed by security forces. The north and the south became divided and in December of 1999, the national army staged a successful coup, on the pretext of non payment of due salaries, while Bedie fled to Togo and then on to Paris. He is widely known as a drunk and corrupt politician, who has little chance of regaining the Presidency. Bedie has announced that this will be his last attempt at the power position if he loses.
So who to choose? It seems to come down to the lesser of evils. I will be spending the day before the election and election day safely within my home, and hoping that violence does not mark the transition.
Friends tell me they have received multiple texts from all the candidates. So far, I have only received ones from Bedie and Gbagbo. Here are some of the recent texts I have received from the Bedie and Gbagbo campaigns:
“Yes we can! Henri Konan Bedie l’a dit longtemps avant Obama. Avec lui le progres pour tous et le bonheur pour chacun etait une realite. Ceux d’en face ont braque le pouvoir pour nous imposer le bonheur pour eux seuls et la misere pour le …peuple. Le disordre, les coup d’etat, la chienlit, les dechets toxiques et l’ecole gratuitement chere font egalement parti de leur programme de gouvernment. Il est temps de mettre un terme a cette situation qui n’a que trop dure. Fier ivorien, le 31 octobre, le pays t;appellera pour un vote historique. Il faudra faire le meilleur des choix. Le choix du progres pour tous et du bonheur pour chacun. Choisi le candidat Henri Konan Bedie pour la construction d’une Cote d’Ivoire de valeurs. Yes you can. Faites passer le message.”
“Si tu aime la Cote D’Ivoire. Si tu veux la paix vote Bedie candidat du PDCI = RDA! Nouvelle Generation d’Attecoube pour H.K.B. Partagez ce message avec vos proches et amis. Que DIEU nous accorde cette PAIX des temps PDCI=RDA!”
“Ivoirien <ne> tu as marche pour dire NON au coup d’etat et a la rebellion, Si tu as marche pour dire NON a la barbarie francaise, alors VOTE GBAGBO pour donner un sens a ton combat. Merci de passer le sms aux autres.”