University of Chicago

The case of Democratic Erosion in the Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast under the 1998 regime of president Bédié reflects the effects of democratic erosion as described by both Bermeo and Levitsky and Ziblatt. For historical context. the regime of President Henri Konan Bédié occurred after the death of former president Houphouet. Freedom house, in 1998, have the country the designation of “not free” with its political rating falling as a 6, with 7 being the worst. This was due to many constitutional changes that Bédié enacted in order to expand presidential powers. Included in these proposed amendments to Parliament were the extension of the then five-year presidential term to seven years. This is a classic symptom of democratic backsliding that we’ve seen discussed throughout the world. When a person in power utilizes government systems to extend the reach of their powers, this is a red flag which may indicate the presence of a despot or an authoritarian leader. Another action that Bédié sought to implement was the ability to suspend fresh elections during times of “unrest.” Unrest is purposefully in quotations here, as it would’ve been entirely up to the discretion of the sitting president to determine what qualified as a period of “unrest.” Regarding this proposal, Ivorian lawyer Boga Doudou remarked, “this clause is like giving a black [check] to someone, since the president has failed to tell us exactly what he means by unrest.” Another primary proposal suggested by Bédié was the penalization of protest organizers for any and all property damages they might incur. This has the intended effect of silencing dissenters and discouraging opposition before it can properly manifest. One of the central reasons why Bédié was able to propose these changes was because at the time, Parliament was dominated by Bédié’s supporters, making up 84% of the country’s 179 legislators. Further, according to Freedom House, the 1998 constitutional changes gave him increased powers of judicial appointment. As judges are political appointees without tenure, they are highly susceptible to external interference. These actions correspond with Bermeo’s coneption of democratic backsliding as executive aggrandizement. Through utilizing the tools of existing institutions to consolidate power.

Another main symptom of backsliding under the Bédié regime was his rise to power—the election of 1995, in which he won with 95% of the vote—was neither free nor fair. He prevented the opposition party’s most promising candidate, Alassane Ouattara, from entering the election on the grounds that he was not truly “Ivorian.” These strict nationality laws further aggravated cultural tensions in the country, as some 40% shared Ouattara’s identification as Muslim.  

Increasingly discontented with this near-authoritarian regime, 1999 saw the political overthrow of Bédié by General Robert Guei—a coup that sent Bédié fleeing abroad. This resulted in the Freedom House rating being increased from “not free” to “partly free.” In attempts to reset the damaging anti-democratic changes made by Bédié, Guei established a National Committee of Public Salvation (CNSP), “dissolved the supreme court, the constitutional court, the national assembly and the cabinet, and promised a return to democratic rule.” Despite these efforts and an expressed commitment to retaining the country’s democratic status, Guei refused to concede power after preliminary results of the 2000 election pointed to his potential downfall. According to Freedom House, he “sacked the electoral commission, detained its officers, and declared himself the winner.” Tens of thousands took to the streets in violent protests as a result. But the 2000 election wasn’t much better on the grounds of democracy. Ouattara was still banned from the ballot, and Laurent Gbagbo, leader of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), shared similar rhetoric regarding Ouattara’s nationality. He won the vote but concerns of lack of free and fair elections remained. These actions by the Ivorian president correspond with Bermeo’s notion of backsliding on the basis of manipulating elections, which “tilt the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents.” All preceding presidents in power refused to recognize and incorporate Ouattara in the ballot due to fear that his overwhelming support among the north would lead to their impending electoral defeats. This is further representative of Levitsky & Ziblatt’s conception of How Democracies Die, in that the political actors denied the legitimacy of opponents, and fail to recognize the “rules of the game.” They utilized non-democratic means to influence the results of the electoral process to solidify their regimes, which could no longer be viewed as “democratic” on that front. 

Cited from Dymond, 2019

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