Campaigning starts in Ivory Coast Thursday for a tense presidential election, with incumbent Alassane Ouattara seeking a controversial third term and the opposition pushing for a boycott and civil disobedience, sparking fears of violence.
Many observers fear a crisis may be sparked by the October 31 election comparable to the one in 2010-2011 when 3,000 people died and the West African nation was plunged into chaos.
“All the Ivorian opposition says No, No, No,” to a third Ouattara mandate, was the message displayed at an opposition rally in Abidjan at the weekend that attracted tens of thousands of people.
There are four candidates in the running — 78-year-old Ouattara; 86-year-old former president Henri Konan Bedie; former prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan and former parliamentarian Kouadio Konan Bertin.
The constitutional council rejected a further 40 would-be candidates including ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, 75, and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, 47, both of whom played key roles in the crisis that engulfed the country after disputed elections in 2010 and claimed some 3,000 lives.
Gbagbo was freed conditionally by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after being cleared in January 2019 of crimes against humanity during that crisis.
He is currently in Brussels pending the outcome of an appeal against the ICC ruling.
The opposition has cried foul over Ouattara’s attempt to secure a third term in office despite the two-term constitutional limit.
After his re-election in 2015, Ouattara announced in March that he would not seek a third term. But he changed his mind after his preferred successor, prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died of a sudden heart attack in July.
Ouattara and his supporters have argued that a 2016 revision of the constitution reset the limit on the number of terms.
– Violent demonstrations –
Demonstrations against Ouattara’s decision to run again have turned violent and left around 15 people dead, reviving memories of the murderous crisis a decade ago.
Several high-profile figures, including Konan Bedie and former prime minister Affi N’Guessan, have called for “civil disobedience” in recent weeks.
A wing of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party (FPI) led by Affi N’Guessan who is one of the contestants, on Wednesday asked supporters not to accept voters’ cards.
“For us, the National Election Commission is no longer a competent body to oversee the election,” said Maurice Kakou Guikahue, the number two of the historically dominant Democratic Party of Ivory Coast.
During the campaign, Ouattara is expected to point to his record on the economy and attempts to restore the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa to its former position as a regional powerhouse.
He is promising a better distribution of growth to the country’s poorest and most remote areas.
“This election will not be credible,” said former Foreign Minister Marcel Amon Tanoh, a former Ouattara loyalist.
Turnout among the 7.5 million people entitled to vote in a country with a total population of 25 million will be a key point.
Observers fear a high abstention rate in a country with a median age of 18.7 for an election in which the two main contenders have been on the political scene for 30 years.
Last week, a delegation of African and UN envoys expressed “deep concern” ahead of the vote.
Last month, the International Crisis Group called for a postponement and suggested political exiles be allowed to return to Ivory Coast.
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