Houphouët-Boigny fails his first test of democracy in Ivory Coast

Mark Huband in Abidjan

The Guardian, 30 October 1990

THE national newspaper – owned by the ruling party, run by the state and censored by the government – led the taunting. Before the polling stations had even closed in the Ivory Coast’s first multiparty presidential election, it was celebrating the victory of its own brand of democracy over the opposition.

Interior .ministry sources, quoting official results from nine-tenths of the country’s 300-odd constituencies, claimed that Africa’s oldest and longest-serving President, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, had received 80 to 82 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s election.

But the opposition candidate, Laurent Gbagbo, did well in urban areas, scoring 40 per cent in the poor Yopougon district of the capital, Abidjan, they said.

Parts of the capital were tense last night after opposition supporters complained of massive vote-rigging. Opposition leaders assembled their own voting figures, based on counts at each polling station throughout the country. By last night they estimated that Mr Gbagbo had received 50.09 per cent the vote, with the incumbent President on 49.91 per cent.

Few opposition party members expected a fair election. As the evidence of fraud became clear, Mr Gbagbo, a history professor and leader of the Ivorian Popular Front, said he was only surprised by the government’s lack of subtlety.

“The entire Ivory Coast needs a change like a blast of oxygen,” he said. “The people need a political party that they can have confidence in. And nothing is going to stop us.”

Mr Houphouët-Boigny has countries ruled the Ivory Coast since independence from France in 1960. On Sunday, for the first time, he competed against an opposition candidate.

The ruling party, the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI), ensured that all the state apparatus was geared up to maximise the President’s standing. The daily newspaper editorialised every news story, state television broadcast flattering and enthusiastic accounts of every PDCI rally, and the state-owned Abidjan bus company provided transport to government meetings.

After an election campaign during which Mr Houphouët-Boigny was not once seen in public, the nature of his victory seemed only slightly different from the single-party campaign of 1985, when he claimed to have won 100 per cent of the with a 99.7 per cent turnout. Some 770 people then did not vote “because they were ill”, officials said at the time.

For most of his years in power, Mr Houphouet-Boigny has seen the Ivory Coast develop into one of the richest countries in Africa. Exports of cocoa, of which it is the world’s biggest producer, have given Ivorians a lifestyle almost unique on the continent. This is reflected in the country’s reputation as the world’s largest per consumer of champagne.

But an economic downturn over the past three years has thrown the country into crisis. A year ago, after a five-day long “dialogue” between politicians and intellectuals demanding political and economic change, the President promised to examine what was being asked for – political pluralism, diversification of the economy, and improved welfare for peasant farmers afflicted by the fall in world commodity prices.

He was adamant that the country was not ready for multi-party democracy, but when thousands of protesters took to the streets in May in an unprecedented uprising, Mr Houphouët-Boigny was forced to legalise opposition parties and accept the challenge to his presidency.

As reports of massive fraud, ballot-rigging and irregularities involving electoral lists carried out by the ruling PDCI began to surface, only hours after the polling stations opened on Sunday, the real test of the President’s ability to change appeared to have failed.

Reports of electoral irregularities were last night fuelling increasing resentment, both on tribal lines and between Ivorians and the country’s estimated three million foreign Africans, who were allowed to vote in the election in the belief that they would support the ruling party.



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