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?

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
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?

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

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.

In Yamoussoukro, Baoulé heartland, Ouattara's party has purchased dozens of small Chinese-made motor scooters, and supporters ride around town waving flags and cajoling their fellow citizens to vote Ouattara through megaphones.

“In the first round, I voted Bédié,” says Celestin Abib Yao N'Dri, 32, a cobbler in the main city marketplace. “But he lost. So in the second round, it's got to be [Ouattara] because we've had enough of the power in place. We're tired. I'm voting for change.”

Mr. N'Dri's Baoulé family has been loyal to Bédié's PDCI party for generations and that it's his duty to follow his leader's instructions and vote for Ouattara.

Ouattara's northern origins

But Ouattara's northern origins don't necessarily go down well here.

The Baoulé grew to think of themselves as the natural ruling class during Houphouët-Boigny's time when he transferred the political capital to Yamoussoukro and showered the region with money and development projects.

When the rebellion broke out in 2002 and failed to topple Gbagbo's government but held onto the northern half of the country, many people saw Ouattara's hand in play.

This perception was reinforced by a video which first circulated on the internet and then was projected in town squares and villages by Gbagbo supporters. The video shows a rebel commander, Zakaria Koné explaining to a gathered crowd that Ouattara sends the rebellion millions of dollars every month.

While Ouattara denies any connection to the rebellion, many Dioula who sympathize with the rebellion openly support Ouattara. Gbagbo's campaign does everything it can to encourage the perception of Ouattara as a warmonger.

As a result, some Baoulé won't vote for a Dioula like Ouattara, no matter what. Martine Kouassi is a grandmother who runs a small restaurant in Yamoussoukro. She supports Gbagbo in the second round, but has paid dearly for this choice.

“I can't vote Ouattara, no matter what the Nana [chief in Baoulé] says ... I will never vote for a Dioula who tore our country apart, who brought war and suffering,” she says.

Kouassi made the mistake of asking Bédié supporters to stop handing out Ouattara campaign literature in her restaurant and only days later received threats that her restaurant would be burned down. Now she has two police officers stationed at the front door everyday, but even the regular clientele don't dare go inside.

“They call me a traitor for not following Bedie's instructions, but I say they're traitors for supporting a rebel,” she says. “I can only hope that when this is all over, my Baoulé brothers and sisters can put this behind us.”

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