Standing on stage before a crowd of several thousand supporters last week, Pascal Affi N’Guessan was on a mission to lead the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), Ivory Coast’s main opposition party, out of its wilderness years.
“The boycott is over,” he said, imploring the crowd to use their votes in Sunday’s parliamentary polls to end President Alassane Ouattara’s allies’ near-monopoly in the legislature. “There’s no one there to oppose them. That’s not normal.”
The FPI will field 186 candidates for the 255 parliament seats, signalling a return to the political mainstream it has largely shunned since a 2011 war ousted President Laurent Gbagbo, its founder.
Ouattara’s coalition is pledging to deliver more of the kind of rapid economic growth that has drawn a flood of foreign investment to French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy since the war ended.
N’Guessan’s FPI argues, however, that growth is simply papering over old wounds left over from the crisis years, and that without a strong counterweight to Ouattara’s power there can be no long-term stability.
But if he is to capitalise on growing divisions within Ouattara’s political juggernaut, which holds around 85 percent of seats in the outgoing National Assembly, N’Guessan will have to overcome the FPI’s own internal split.
Over 3 000 people were killed in the conflict sparked by Gbagbo’s refusal to accept his defeat to Ouattara in a presidential run-off in late 2010.
Since then, the world’s top cocoa-growing country has experienced a strong economic revival under Ouattara, but rights groups complain that national reconciliation has stalled.
N’Guessan, like most FPI leaders, was jailed after the war. He was released in 2013, but many opposition supporters remain in prison.
An October referendum on a new constitution was criticised by many Ivorians, as well as some civil society groups and diplomats, as a unilateral initiative of Ouattara and his allies.
Not my president
“I will vote for Affi because I think an FPI with lots of MPs in parliament will balance the debate,” said Joseph Kouyouan, 40, at N’Guessan’s rally in the town of Bongouanou, his home constituency.
Ouattara’s coalition, the RHDP, decided to field a unified list of candidates for the elections, leading to horse-trading over which member parties will be allowed to contest which seats.
Two smaller coalition members quit the RHDP over the manner in which constituencies were divided up. Their two ministers were fired.
Disgruntled coalition members have caused the number of independents to balloon. Some 741 will appear on Sunday’s ballots, constituting more than half of all candidates seeking seats.
“I know that I have the support of the people, who are coming out to my rallies,” said Yamina Ouegnin, an incumbent MP who was left off the ruling coalition’s list and is running as an independent.
It would seem an opportune time for the FPI to rejoin the political fray, but not all its supporters are on board with the idea.
For two years, the FPI has been split, with N’Guessan calling for it to contest polls and hardliners urging continued boycotts until Gbagbo - on trial at the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity - returns.
Many of the FPI’s traditional voters, particularly in Gbagbo’s native western Ivory Coast, have sided with the latter faction.
“Ouattara is not my president and Affi is not the president of the FPI, so I’m not voting,” said Honore Bida, 44, a taxi driver from the Yopougon district of the commercial capital Abidjan. “I’ll stay home and drink my beer.”