Bertin K. Kouadio, Department of International Studies, Wilson College
As a political scientist, I see things somewhat differently from the way cultural anthropologists do. This article therefore avoids a technical discussion of the effect of language on political consciousness. Yet, I want to argue that the November 2010 presidential debate between President Laurent Gbagbo and his challenger, Alassane Ouattara, was a key symbolic moment in producing, and perhaps undermining, democracy in Côte d’Ivoire , , , , .
On 25 November 2010, Côte d’Ivoire held its first presidential debate after a preceding, thirty-year period of one-party rule that ended in 1990 when the country adopted a multiparty system for the first time. The debate was a good exercise in democracy not only for Côte d’Ivoire but for much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa as well. It was significant in that it allowed the candidates to explain their political visions and agendas to voters and to the international community. It was also an occasion for Ouattara, the challenger, to prove himself after having suffered several, repeated political humiliations. In 1993, he lost a constitutional battle to retain power as prime minister in the wake of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s death, and in both 1995 and 2000, he was excluded from presidential and legislative elections, respectively. For Gbagbo, the incumbent, the debate was a chance to demonstrate his vision for Côte d’Ivoire, which he had until then claimed he could not realize because of the failed coup against his regime in 2002, which then developed into a rebellion until 2007 and a coalition government until 2010.
The debate began with cordial statements by both candidates of their respective reasons for running for president. The topics they then debated included a staggeringly wide range of issues: the 1999 attempted coup, the presidential elections of 2000, the issue of national reconciliation after the rebellion, the state of the armed forces and national security, international diplomacy, state corruption, the national economy and agriculture, unemployment figures, and the state of health, education, communications, and immigration in the country. In closing remarks, both candidates promised to respect the results of the upcoming elections. They then shook hands with a smile, apparently satisfied by their own individual performances. Ouattara went on to tease Gbagbo: “You had two terms, that is enough.” Then Gbagbo replied, “I did two terms in one, and that was because of you” . The pungent humor of the candidates’ remarks revealed tensions simmering just beneath the surface.
Commentary on the debate sustained the competitive cordiality projected by the candidates’ exchange of handshakes, hugs, and humor. Predictably, the leaders of each party—Gbagbo’s Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) and Ouattara’s Rally for Republicans (RDR)—praised their candidate for having done the better job. But the candidates’ subsequent reactions to results of the second and final round of presidential elections on November 28, 2010 confirmed the superficial nature of the debate’s cordiality. Ouattara won 54.1% of the vote and Gbagbo 45.9%  according to Côte d’Ivoire’s Independent Electoral Commission, the United Nations representative in Côte d’Ivoire, and European Union observers’ certifications. On November 30, “Damana Adia Pickass, a member of the electoral commission, seized the papers with the election results from the hands of commission spokesman Bamba Yacouba when he was about to read them out, and tore them up in front of journalists” . On Friday, December 3, the Gbagbo regime declared itself the winner, claiming to have won just over 51% of the vote and alleging fraud in Ouattara’s northern strongholds .
In retrospect, the presidential debate once so highly praised had been no more than a façade, a “democratic” means of hiding undemocratic intentions, a momentary way to defer civil war, and a salient example of the hazards of assuming the translatability of democracy from one political language to another. Although legislative elections occurred peacefully on December 11, 2011 , an FPI demonstration turned violent on January 21, 2012 when political opponents killed one protester . The capacity for democratic rhetoric to reflect and sustain a real democracy thus persists as a supreme challenge in Côte d’Ivoire’s post-Gbagbo era.
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