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How ethnicity colors the Ivory Coast election

Third-place candidate Henri Konan Bédié threw his support behind Alassane Ouattara in Sunday's Ivory Coast election, but how many from Mr. Bédié's Baoulé ethnic group actually voted for a Muslim northerner?

By Marco Chown OvedContributor / November 28, 2010

Presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara greets his supporters after casting his vote in Abidjan, Sunday. Third-place candidate Henri Konan Bédié backed Alassane Ouattara in Sunday's election, but will ethnic division prevent previous supporters of Mr. Bédié's Baoulé from backing a Muslim Northerner?

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters

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Yamoussoukro and Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Voting along ethnic lines is still a reality in the fledgling democracies of West Africa.

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A glance at the results of the recent election in Guinea shows that the phenomenon is alive and strong. There, Alpha Condé, who received a mere 18 percent in the first round of voting, was able to pick up the “anyone but a Peul” vote, and rode a wave of discontent against the country's majority ethnicity into the presidency earlier this month.

In neighboring Ivory Coast, sitting president Laurent Gbagbo says he's putting an end to this kind of thinking. But his strategy of unifying Ivorians against a “foreign” adversary brings forth nationalistic passions that are often trained on recent immigrants from poorer nations to the north -- as well as lifelong citizens from the country's mainly Muslim north.

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Mr. Gbagbo's opponent in Sunday's presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, has been disqualified from running on two previous occasions after having his Ivorian nationality called into question. But, he too, claims to rise above petty tribal politics. He ran on his record as an jet-setting economist with the International Monetary Fund; the man who can secure the financing needed to rebuild the country after it's civil war and ensuing political crisis.

After the first round of voting, Gbagbo's people proudly pointed to a map of the country in which regions in the south, east, and west all voted for Gbagbo, supposedly proving that he's truly a candidate who rises above the tribalism and regional popularity of his adversaries. Attracting this broad appeal is actually Gbagbo's only option, as he belongs to a minority ethnicity, the Bété, who cannot propel him to victory on their own.

Who will win 'the Baoulé vote'?

First-round runner-up Ouattara, a member of the Dioula ethnic group, took only regions in the north (where he received almost 90 percent of the vote in some cases) and third place finisher Henri Konan Bédié won in the center of the country, where his Baoulé ethnic group dominates.

Mr. Bédié has been dropped from the ballot for Sunday's run-off election, and in spite of their rise-above rhetoric, the two front-running candidates have been heavily courting the Baoulé vote. Bédié's 25 percent support in the first round makes him king-maker in the run-off.

Three days after the vote, Bédié cut short any speculation and threw his support behind Ouattara, saying that had they worked together in the government of independence leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny and could work together again because they hail from the same political family. But as the run-off draws near, it's unclear whether this endorsement will be enough to overcome the Baoulé's ethnic pre-occupations.

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