Boston University

Ivory Coast’s Democratic Transgression by Dylan Gleeman

Ivory Coast is in a clearly defined erosion of their democracy. Democratic erosion is a gradual process that transpires when elected leaders progressively undermine democracy. Oftentimes, it is difficult to tell when the line has been crossed from democracy to non-democracy. This has become more pressing in the past 12 years in which 113 countries have illustrated a net decline in their democracy, and only 62 have seen a net improvement (Freedom House). One of these 113 countries is Ivory Coast, whose democracy has been subtly eroding through “legal processes and democratic institutions” (Levitsky & Ziblatt). 

Two theories for democratic breakdowns are structural-explanations, which emphasize the conditions in which decisions are made, and agent-based explanations, which emphasize individual manipulation of government systems (Linz & Stephan). Ivory Coast fills the latter. Their President, Alassane Ouattara, seems to rule as if domineering government institutions are autonomous, but in reality, they seem to be based on his personal attributes. Levitsky and Ziblatt state, “Institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.” Ouattara, in his second term, abandoned forbearance, making his want to run for a third term a calamity. 

With regard to agent-based explanation and institutional forbearance, Ouattara distorted the constitution by legally amending it in his favor. Not only did his reform eliminate age limits for presidential candidates, permitting him to run again, but also Ivory Coast had a two-term limit until this amendment, sparking citizen concern. “Some analysts say Ouattara is deliberately stoking confusion about his plans in order to reaffirm his authority” (Bax & Monnier). In 2016, opposition leaders branded “the [reformed] constitution a ploy to further entrench Ouattara’s political coalition.” Opposition followers violently disrupted the voting polls and claimed the voter turnout was rigged, meaning the current ‘new’ constitution “is not legitimate.” Lastly, the “new text allows future changes to the constitution to go ahead without a referendum and with two-thirds majority in parliament, a body dominated by Ouattara’s allies” (Bavier). The majority of Ivory Coast’s voters hint that his potential “candidature will be rejected by the public and could be a potential source of violence,” and leaders that escalate/tolerate violence threaten democracies. However, “the biggest problem is that there is not a real alternative” (Bax & Monnier).  

Potential explanations for Ivory Coast’s democratic backsliding are “corruption cases [that] have further undermined the government’s reputation” (Bax & Monnier) and the spread of economic inequality. “Growing inequality eroded Ouattara’s popularity. Evictions of thousands of people”…”have stoked criticism that the government is ignoring the poor” (Bax & Monnier). The reason why economic inequality gaps are bad for democracy are because when the spread is larger, elites typically must pay more in taxes, which they would not want to do (Acemoglu & Robinson). Hence, as Ivory Coast’s middle class sinks down, so does their democracy. According to Wid.World, “The top 1% income share was 11.6% in 2014” …and their new estimates depict that: “The top 1% income share is 17.1% and the top 10% of earners capture 48.3% of total fiscal income. This places [Ivory Coast] among the group of high inequality countries.”

This did not start overnight. The previous president, Laurent Gbagbo, divided the nation into a “rebel held north and a government-run south [which] fueled outbreaks of violence.” (Bax & Monnier) Since his loss of power to Ouattara in 2010, Ivory Coast’s government agent’s opposition “has fallen apart” (Bax & Monnier). Perhaps, citizens helped fuel anger towards the opposition. 

Ouattara’s first term drove Ivory Coast to record economic growth, leading to his re-election in 2015. However, since then there has been a “series of army mutinies and a general strike by civil servants over pension payments” (Bax & Monnier). Furthermore, Ouattara has eliminated political competition by disqualifying candidates from presidential elections, leaving the military ruler to have little challenge in extending his rule.

Levitsky and Ziblatt introduced a concept called mutual toleration. It simply states: “As long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern.” However, as the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals diminishes, so does Ivory Coast’s democracy. In this regard, Ouattara does not seem to be “mutually tolerant”!

Moreover, Ozan Varol, in “Stealth Authoritarianism” indirectly addresses Ouattara’s regime as a stealth authoritarianism; undermining the chances of opposition taking power through exercising legal mechanisms within democratic regimes to stop opposition. This is illustrated through Ouattara’s adopting of electoral laws to disenfranchise opposition, laws that tend to favor the incumbent that can be manipulated to benefit the ruling party at the expense of the opposition.  And because it is done like this, it is hard to differentiate the abuse of democratic institutions and the legitimate application of them. It is difficult to know when his actions are authoritarian when it happens in the context of the constitution. 

Currently, Ivory Coast is a Republic. However, the question remains: Will the country fall victim to transitioning from a democratic government to an authoritarian one, if it has not already? Based on the government changing the rules of the game, as they go, and omitting opposition parties, as well as the nation’s wealth inequality, it appears Ivory Coast is going through a democratic retrogression. For Ivory Coast to democratize, it must either modernize to maintain conditions conducive to democracy through industrialization, urbanization, and education, develop a democratic culture, fix economic factors, such as political institutions, the level of inequality and the middle class, or, elect soft-liners; “individuals who are part of the regime but willing to change and incorporate new actors into the system” (O’Donnell & Schmitter).

Photo by Blackwell, Rebecca, “” AP Photo, 2016.

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