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Côte d’Ivoire’s RHDP party seeks new candidate after Coulibaly’s death

By Benjamin Roger

Posted on July 13, 2020 15:17

The death of Amadou Gon Coulibaly on 8 July has left the Ivorian political party Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix – RHDP) without a candidate for the presidential election. Who can fill in his shoes? 

Once the initial period of shock has passed, Alassane Ouattara is going to have to get himself together very quickly and consider his next steps. With the death of Amadou Gon Coulibaly, a colleague the head of state worked with for 30 years and treated as his own son, Ouattara, devastated by his passing, has found himself without a successor for the upcoming presidential election in October.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Death of Prime Minister leaves political void

The man who never wanted to hear about a “plan B” during the two months his prime minister spent convalescing in Paris is now forced to find another candidate. Who will he choose? It’s still too early to tell. Ouattara himself continues to weigh the pros and cons of each contender.

Below we detail the main options open to him, assuming the election will indeed take place on 31 October 2020, as a postponement of several weeks due to COVID-19 cannot be completely ruled out, especially given that it would suit a wide swath of the political class.

A third term for Ouattara

Ouattara caught everyone by surprise on 5 March when he announced, in front of MPs convened in Congress in Yamoussoukro, that he would not run for a third term of office.

READ MORE Alassane Ouattara’s no third term decision: Behind the scenes

“Throughout my career, I’ve always attached a particular importance to following through on my commitments. As a result, I’ve decided not to be a candidate in the 2020 presidential election,” he said at the time, adding that he wanted “to hand over power to a new generation”. One week later, Gon Coulibaly was, to no surprise, designated the presidential candidate for RHDP.

Now that the man in whom Ouattara put his full trust as his successor no longer exists, will he backpedal? On paper, he is in theory allowed to run for a third term based on the new constitution adopted in 2016.

READ MORE Alassane Ouattara: ‘I did it my way’

However, his rivals dispute this right, reminding him that he was elected in 2010 and 2015 and has thus already served two terms. What’s more, in spite of the unusual circumstances, if the president were to announce now that he is ultimately running to succeed himself, he would give the impression that he contradicted himself and was abandoning his efforts to foster the rise of a new generation.

Even if he had actually wanted to leave office prior to Gon Coulibaly’s death, he would find himself automatically categorised as a president who does not know how to hand over power, which would be a gift to his rivals.

Before Ouattara named his prime minister as his potential successor last March, there were many people who behind the scenes urged him to run. This was particularly the case within the ranks of his original party, the Rally of the Republicans (Rassemblement des républicains – RDR), including the minister Cissé Bacongo. With Gon Coulibaly’s passing, this cohort will no doubt come back in full force.

As for the president, he hesitated for a long time.

In 2015, after his re-election, he asserted that he would not run again in 2020. Two years later, in 2017, as mutinies within the army rocked the country, he stopped ruling out his potential candidacy for another term. More recently, at the end of 2019, he also indicated that he intended to run if his opponents, i.e., Laurent Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bédié, did.

Now that Bédié has been declared the candidate for the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire – PDCI), which is expected to formally invest him at the end of July, Ouattara could use this as an excuse to dive back into the political arena.

Hamed Bakayoko, the alternative

If Ouattara sticks to his commitment and does not run for a third term, Hamed Bakayoko has the trappings of the RHDP’s most likely presidential contender. While Bakayoko is not as close to the head of state as Gon Coulibaly was, he is an influential member of the president’s inner circle. Moreover, he’s the one who served as acting head of government during the prime minister’s two-month recovery period in Paris, and both heads of the executive branch were satisfied with his performance.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Why Prime Minister Coulibaly is at hospital in France

A faithful side-kick of the president and close ally of the first lady, Dominique Ouattara, the current minister of defence has always demonstrated loyalty. When he was passed over for Gon Coulibaly as the president’s successor, 55-year-old Bakayoko did not bat an eye. He yielded to Ouattara’s choice and lined up behind the prime minister.

He went along with what was best for the group and opted to be patient to avoid jeopardising his chances when his turn would come.

The only government official with the rank of minister of state, Bakayoko served as minister of interior before being appointed minister of defence in 2017 to clean up the army. An executive branch heavyweight who rapidly rose through the ranks, his personal connections extend beyond Côte d’Ivoire’s borders.

He also seems to have been more popular than Gon Coulibaly. A native of Adjamé, he readily displays a certain closeness with the population. In addition, his friendships with Ivorian celebrities, such as late DJ Arafat, have contributed to his popularity among young people.

Well-spoken and completely at ease during meetings, he ticks a number of the boxes to be the substitute candidate for the RHDP. All the more so that he has already demonstrated he is capable of winning an election: during the municipal elections at the end of 2018, he was sent to represent the party in Abobo, a working-class commune of Abidjan with one million residents, so that it would remain an RDR stronghold. Bakayoko was successful, elected with almost 60% of the vote.

Nevertheless, Ouattara does not exhibit the same blind trust for Bakayoko that he did for Gon Coulibaly, with whom he had worked alongside for 30 years. A few months ago, the head of state felt that “Hamed”, as he calls him, was not yet ready to take over, and that he did not yet have the stature of a statesman or the technocratic/economic background that Ouattara deeply prizes.

Patrick Achi, the surprise candidate

And what if Patrick Achi is Ouattara’s plan B? Such a choice would surprise more than a few, but the secretary general of the presidency is one of the rare people likely to be able to pick up the torch in the RHDP. A close confidant of Ouattara, Achi has established himself as a key player in the presidential apparatus since he was appointed secretary general of the presidency in 2017. On 8 July, he’s the one who appeared on the national television channel RTI to announce Gon Coulibaly’s death on the president’s behalf.

Trained as an engineer (just as the prime minister was), Achi, 64, embodies several of the traits Ouattara likes: loyal, hardworking and comfortable with most major issues facing the government.

As minister of infrastructure from 2000 to 2017, under Gbagbo and then Ouattara, he spearheaded most of the major projects that have shaped the country in recent years.

Originally from Adzopé (southern Côte d’Ivoire), Achi’s main political advantage is that he was a highly influential member of the PDCI before he joined the RHDP. Former deputy chair of the party, he was also very close to Bédié.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Bédié and Gbagbo react to Ouattara’s withdrawal

If Ouattara chose a successor issued from the ranks of the former single party, it would signal his openness while allowing him to tread on the toes of Bédié, the RHDP’s primary threat in the presidential election. This is especially so given that this consensus candidate, who worked right up until the very end to reconcile the head of state and Bédié before their political break-up in 2018, has remained on good terms with many of the officials of his former political party.

Despite the fact that he has served as chair of the Regional Council of La Mé since 2013, Achi does not give off the impression of a full-fledged politician. With his low-key media presence and lesser-known face compared to Bakayoko, he would need to make up for his lack of notoriety within the space of just a few weeks if he is chosen to replace Gon Coulibaly.

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