Unbalanced battle between unknown leaders marks Ivory Coast’s hesitant steps down democratic road




Mark Huband in Abidjan

The Guardian, 2 June 1990

NOBODY seemed to object when the leaders of the Ivory Coast’s recently legalised opposition parties were frisked with a metal detector before the first meeting with their main rival – the President.

“He is receiving them as head of state, not as leader of the Democratic Party,” President Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s chief of protocol announced before the meeting last Friday. But as they were presented to the President it was clear that this was Round One of the election campaign, and the President had won it just by carefully choosing which hat he would wear for the occasion.

Communists, national socialists, workers and popular fronts emerged out of the unrest in the country which exploded on to the streets of Abidjan in February this year. What began as protests over wage cuts turned into demands for the resignation of the government and the establishment of a multiparty state.

The constitution allows for the creation of opposition parties: a right denied for 30 years by the Democratic Party. But it has latterly become expedient for the regime to abide by the constitution in order to gain valuable political capital for the elections being fought in October.

Since April 31, when the ban traditional arguments against on political opposition was lifted, 14 parties have been registered and six more are expected to be formed. Some opposition leaders claim that up to six of the new parties are being created by the Democratic Party itself, in an effort to splinter the voting. This would help to secure a mandate for the rich and powerful ruling party, which alone has the nationwide machinery to fight an election.

By ensuring for itself maximum coverage on the state-owned television and in the only national daily newspaper Fraternité-Matin (which it owns) the Democratic Party has attempted to portray itself as in the vanguard of changes which in the past it violently suppressed.

It is doubtful whether the opposition parties will have the opportunity to use the media to put forward their views. They are largely relying on the government’s deep unpopularity to secure support. Low wages, a foreign debt of $8.2 billion and the growing contrast between rich and poor, have emerged as the key issues; rather than the need for unity at all costs and fear of tribal conflict along political lines – the government’s traditional arguments against democracy.

The Democratic Party only reluctantly accepted the democratic process. Pressure from France, the country’s main banker and backer, forced it to accept change, along with most of the former French colonies in the region, in return for continued financial support.

When the party holds its five-yearly congress sometime in the next few weeks, it is expected to name a successor to Mr Houphouet-Boigny as head of the party.

The advantage for the opposition parties is that whoever is chosen by the Democratic Party will be almost as unknown as their own leaders. But what is also possible, as the country’s fledgling democracy builds up steam, is that if the opposition fails to get its message across, a conservative backlash may take place. The electorate could well opt for the party it has known for years in preference to the myriad of unknowns whose policy platforms are as unclear as the qualities of their leaders.


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