Weeks of chaos that followed President Laurent Gbagbo’s ousting of Ivory Coast’s electoral commission boss last month have enabled him to delay a poll he is unsure of winning, and left his opponents looking weaker.
The vote has been repeatedly postponed since 2005 and no new timeframe has been announced since it missed a March deadline. Fresh rows over voter registration and rebel disarmament have since resurfaced that may push it back months.
Polls, for president and later parliament, are seen as vital to reuniting the world’s top cocoa producer, which has been half controlled by rebels since a 2002-3 war split it in two, and ushering in investment needed if it is to retake its place as West Africa’s economic hub.
“Right now Gbagbo doesn’t want to go to elections because the conditions for his victory are not guaranteed,” said International Crisis Group Ivory Coast expert Rinaldo Depagne.
“His strategy to win over voters in the north and west has only half worked. There are economic and social problems, like water and electricity. If he fears he can’t win, he’ll wait.”
Gbagbo denies deliberately slowing the electoral process.
He disbanded the government and commission last month, accusing its former chief of adding names to the voter roll. Two weeks of violent protests left at least seven people dead.
A compromise between Gbagbo and the opposition coalition representing the parties of presidential candidates Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bedie was struck and the government was reinstated with minor changes.
Both sides claimed victory from the deal mediated by former rebel Prime Minister Guillaume Soro and Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compoare, but both have had to make big compromises.
Gbagbo had wanted to start a new electoral commission from scratch and have no political parties involved in forming it. He eventually accepted keeping it as before but with a new leader, Youssouf Bakayoko, who like predecessor Robert Mambe is a member of Bedie’s Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI).
The opposition had wanted Mambe to stay, but backed down.
And while it was able to mobilise supporters onto the streets, the scale of protests was not massive. Most were only of a few hundred people, and only one managed several thousand.
Opposition politicians say that was enough.
“We’re not trying to topple the government, just show force,” said PDCI spokesperson Emile Ebrottie. “Gbagbo gained a three-week delay, but what did he gain politically?”
Pressure from donors to hurry up with the polls continues to mount, but the West seems to have little leverage.
US Ambassador Susan Rice told the UN Security Council this week said Gbagbo’s dissolution of the commission was being used as a pretext to delay the vote and suggested the government’s claim to want polls had lost credibility.
Defiant, Gbagbo’s supporters say the blame is misplaced and insist the polls will take as long as they have to.
“It wasn’t Gbagbo who split the country in two; it’s not Gbagbo who decides when elections can happen,” Affi N’Guessan, head of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) told Reuters.
Six million Ivorians registered to vote but about a million of those were contested because of doubts about nationality.
A legal process of contesting names has resumed and was supposed to be over by the end of the month, but Gbagbo’s party now wants an independent audit of the names so far, which opposition and donors say would delay things even more.
His supporters are also again insisting on rebel disarment before the polls, reversing earlier leniency on this point.
That could make life hard for former rebel leader Soro, 36, who since he became prime minister in 2007 has cast himself as a neutral overseer of the peace process, analysts say with an aim of running for president when he is 40, the minimum age.
The rebels say they have disarmed apart from 5 000 who will help secure the polls and disarm after reunification.
“In the meantime, who is going to defend the country?” said New Forces spokesperson and Soro aide Issa Doumbia.
Either way, it all bodes poorly for an early election.
Pic: President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast