Decision time: Can Côte d’Ivoire’s president resist the allure of a third term?

The death of Ivorian Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly has left the governing party without a presidential candidate — less than four months before elections. Speculation is rife that President Alassane Ouattara may end up seeking the third term he had earlier said he would not pursue.

Gon Coulibaly, 61, died on Wednesday after taking part in the weekly cabinet meeting. He arrived back in the country from France less than a week before, where he had been receiving treatment for a heart condition for the past two months. He travelled there regularly since major surgery in 2012.

When he was evacuated on May 2, amid international border closures because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government said it was for a routine medical check-up. Days later, it was disclosed that he had had a stent inserted and needed several more weeks of rest in the French capital before returning home.

The “Lion of Korhogo”, as he was affectionately called — referring to the northern city from which he hailed and where he was one-time mayor — was Ouattara’s chosen successor. “I pay tribute to my younger brother, my son, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, who was my closest ally for 30 years,” the president said in a statement read out on national television. 

“The death of Gon Coulibaly forces the RHDP [The Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace] to review its entire strategy built around Gon Coulibaly. The party must make tough choices and President Ouattara will return to the heart of the political game for this electoral battle,” said Ousmane Zina, a political analyst based at Alassane Ouattara University in Bouaké, the country’s second-biggest city. “We cannot say for sure he will be a candidate, but he will in any case be the pillar of the RHDP,” he said.

Party leaders have not ruled out a third term, despite lingering doubts over the constitutionality thereof. “Everything is possible today,” Adama Bictogo, the RHDP executive director, told reporters at the party’s headquarters on Thursday, adding that party leaders would be meeting shortly to decide.

Eight days of national mourning were declared, starting on July 10.

Rivals eye the nomination

Ouattara fell out with his main coalition partner, Henri Konan Bédié, over the issue of a third term in 2018, when he suggested that a new constitution adopted in 2016 reset the clocks – this would allow him to run again, if he wished. Bédié, 86, who supported Ouattara in elections in 2010 and again in 2015, announced his bid for the presidency for the opposition Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire, known by its French acronym, PDCI, last month. 

When Bédié pulled his party out of the  governing coalition, several key members decided to stay, including secretary general in the presidency Patrick Achi and Vice-President Daniel Kablan Duncan. Their senior positions in government could make them eligible presidential candidates, but their origins in the PDCI may disadvantage them, according to analysts.    

While the October vote could pit the longstanding rivals against each other once again, quelling the presidential ambitions of those within the party’s ranks may be challenging – Defence Minister Hamed Bakayoko, who was interim prime minister while Gon Coulibaly was on medical leave, being among them.

A Bakayoko candidacy will be appealing for many reasons, said Tochi Eni-Kalu, an analyst at Eurasia Group, in an emailed note. “A charismatic politician, he is popular among the party base and young Ivorians; also, he has a proven electoral track record, having handily won a competitive mayoral race in Abobo, Côte d’Ivoire’s most populous municipality,” he said. “But party elites have long held reservations about his readiness for office — recent media reports alleging his involvement in drug trafficking will do little to alter these perceptions — and Ouattara’s decision to pick Coulibaly in the first place was partly informed by the latter’s technocratic reputation, something which Bakayoko lacks”.

Whoever does end up leading the RHDP ticket will also have to contend with exiled former national assembly speaker and ex-rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who announced his candidacy last year after falling out with Ouattara. Soro, 48, has since been convicted and sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail for embezzlement of public funds and money laundering, and still faces a charge of endangering state security. He denies the allegations, which he deems to be politically motivated.

A nation on edge

Elections in the world’s top cocoa grower, which have seen some of the world’s highest economic growth rates in recent years, are building up to be the most tense since Ouattara took office in 2011, after five months of post-electoral violence that left more than 3 000 people either missing or dead.

The 2011 violence was triggered by then-president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat. Gbagbo was acquitted on charges of crimes against humanity in The Netherlands-based International Criminal Court in January last year, but is awaiting the outcome of the prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal. In May, restrictions on his conditional release were eased to allow him to travel to any country that is prepared to receive him, but as of Wednesday, Communications minister Sidi Touré said the Ivorian government had not received any requests for his return.

The RHDP is expected to announce its new candidate a week after Gon Coulibaly’s funeral, according to Bictogo, with the electoral commission deadline to submit candidates’ names set for September 1. 

“At this stage I can’t tell you definitively who the candidate will be, but rest assured that it will be a choice who unifies, not divides,” Bictogo said.

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