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Opinion: Election runoff in Ivory Coast

Credible polls were a step in the right direction, but the runoff vote will be the true test.

Ivory Coast election
A man in Ivory Coast casts his vote on October 31, 2010 at a polling station in Abidjan for a presidential election that has been postponed six times in five years and is seen as a chance to turn the page on political turmoil and vicious civil war. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Election day in Ivory Coast came and went, but the race is far from over yet.

Observers gave the presidential vote on Oct. 31 high marks, and Ivorians appear to have accepted the results. Given the country’s disastrous recent history, these are achievements in and of themselves.

The true test will be on Nov. 28, when a runoff is planned between the top two candidates, neither of whom won a majority. Current president Laurent Gbagbo, a French-educated academic and opposition leader, will run against his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim and former International Monetary Fund economist educated in the United States.

It's the runoff that will test Ivorian political will to restore national unity.

Ivory Coast thrived as West Africa’s most developed country during the rule of pro-Western but authoritarian Felix Houphouet-Boigny from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. With France guaranteeing political stability with its military base outside Abidjan, there was investment in agriculture, and the country became rich from cocoa, coffee and sugar exports.

Houphouet-Boigny, who regarded himself as both French and African, maintained an “open door” to immigrants from other francophone states that provided the labor for the economy to boom.

However, Houphouet-Boigny did nothing to prepare the country for an eventual political transition.

After his death, the successor government of President Henri Konan Bedie was increasingly corrupt and inept. Bedie sponsored the concept of “Ivoirite,” a form of Ivorian nationalism shading into xenophobia, as a means to assert the country’s post-colonial identity and to strengthen his political position.

“Ivoirite” involved excluding from political life those of immigrant descent, including Ouattara, whose mother was from Burkina Faso. He also arrested his political rivals, and alienated many in the north, including those serving in the military.

A 1999 military coup overthrew President Bedie and initiated a chain of subsequent attempted coups culminating in the presidency of Laurent Gbagbo and a year of civil war that ended in 2003. The cease-fire was negotiated by the Africa Union and France, but clashes continued.

In the decade after Houphouet-Boigny’s death, the violence and political maneuverings took place against falling cocoa and coffee prices. Absent a strongman and with declining French influence, Bedie and other politicians appropriated ethnic, religious and, notably, “Ivoirite” identities to mobilize their personal political support.

While the north felt increasingly marginalized, xenophobia increased in the south. Northerners widely supported a military-led 2002-2003 revolt against Bedie’s successor, President Laurent Gbagbo. The rebellion soon spread to the western part of the country, involving irregulars from Liberia and Sierra Leone.