Ivorians Try To Bring Peace With New Parliament

Dec 12, 2011
Originally published on December 12, 2011 11:05 am
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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, today, many Catholics are celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Also called the Virgin of Guadalupe, the figure has become a cultural icon for many across Latin America. We'll tell you why in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to talk about elections to elect a new parliament that took place yesterday in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. It was the first national election in a decade and the first since the disputed presidential election back in November of 2010.

Then former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept that he'd lost to challenger Alassane Ouattara. The country erupted in violence that ended with thousands of people killed and caused thousands more to flee the country. Just last week, former President Gbagbo appeared before the International Criminal Court at The Hague to stand trial on charges of war crimes related to that violence.

Now, as the country recovers from civil war, officials hope the election will bring further stability and economic growth to the nation. Here to talk more about it is Laura Burke. She's a reporter based in Abidjan who covered the elections for the Associated Press. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LAURA BURKE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Laura, I understand that you visited a number of polling places in Abidjan yesterday. The election, I assume, was closely monitored. What did you see?

BURKE: Yeah, that's right. So I visited about four polling stations yesterday in Abidjan. I went to neighborhoods that support President Ouattara and also some neighborhoods that support former President Laurent Gbagbo. And, overall, the turnout appeared, anecdotally, to be quite low. Of course, the official numbers are not out yet. Before the elections a couple of days ago, Gbagbo's leaders, the leaders of the Ivorian Popular Front were calling on voters not to go to the polls.

MARTIN: Why were they calling on voters not to go to the polls? To deprive the results of legitimacy, would that be the reason?

BURKE: That's what people are saying, that it's politically strategic. It's a way to make it look like the government does not have the mandate of the people. But beforehand, I mean, some - you know, observers were kind of wondering, why would you boycott an election? Don't you want power? Don't you want to, you know, have a role in the lawmaking process?

But we're seeing, even the day after the elections, a lot of rhetoric coming out from Gbagbo's party. We saw headlines on the opposition newspaper, saying that, you know, this was a victory for Gbagbo. And even Gbagbo's spokesperson came out with a statement today saying that the voter turnout had been 20 percent - that's his estimate - and that this illegitimized President Ouattara's government.

MARTIN: Has delegitimized his government. Now, what are - I understand that the election was monitored by both UN observers and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. What are they saying about the turnout and the fairness of the elections to this point? What are they saying?

BURKE: So, there was a press conference late last night at the UN and the UN special representative, Bert Koenders, spoke to the press and he congratulated the Ivorian government for carrying out what, up until now, looks like free and fair elections. He did mention that, anecdotally, the turnout seemed to be a bit low, but he wasn't about to say, you know, what the numbers were. He was going to let the electoral commission do that.

But, throughout the day yesterday, I was talking to the UN, talking to government officials. Everybody was reporting there were no incidents. It did come out later that there had been a few minor security incidents. But those, of course, were still being investigated. But we heard that there were some armed men who stormed a polling station and stole ballot boxes. But, overall, I think the UN - I can imagine right now - and Ivorian officials are relieved because this has been many, many months in the making.

MARTIN: When do you think results will be reported? When do you think we'll know the outcome?

BURKE: So, we're actually seeing some results coming out right now. We saw two candidates have been elected, both from President Ouattara's party. The RDR, Rassemblement des Republicains, Rally of the Republicans. And those two were elected in the Abidjan area. And I think that they're going to come trickling in in the next couple of days or so, so we should have an idea of who's won the seats, probably by the end of tomorrow, but we'll see.

And, of course, Ouattara's party, along with another party that is part of his coalition, the PDCI - those two parties are expected to sweep to victory, especially given that Gbagbo's party, the FPI boycotted. However...

MARTIN: You know what's interesting? I'm sorry. We spend so much time talking about the mechanics of the elections, we kind of brushed right past the issues. What were the issues upon which each side campaigned?

BURKE: The two main parties that have campaigned this past week are both aligned with President Ouattara. So, they're both promising to bring about economic growth and more security, as well as, you know, more jobs. There are also many independent candidates and some of those independent candidates are aligned with former President Gbagbo. And they are very much focusing on security because that's a big concern for folks who support Gbagbo and feel a little bit of victors' justice at this point.

MARTIN: Finally, as we mentioned, former president Gbagbo is currently at The Hague facing war crimes charges. I'm wondering whether this is an issue that's on the minds of Ivorians. What sense do you have how people in the Ivory Coast feel about this? And do you think it had any effect on the voting yesterday?

BURKE: Yeah. I think that everybody here has an opinion about Gbagbo's transfer to The Hague and there is certainly no one Ivorian reaction to that. There are still many people here who support Gbagbo and a lot of people expressed that it was unjust to have him be the only one going there. Of course, the ITC is saying that they may issue arrest warrants for as many as six more people and they're saying they'll issue arrest warrants from people of both sides, allies of both Gbagbo and Ouattara.

But as far as those who support Ouattara, many people said that this is what Gbagbo deserves, and he's the one responsible for most of the deaths and human rights violations that happened last year. So, as far as its effect on the election, it might have fueled the boycott of it because it was kind of icing on the cake for the pro-Gbagbo group.

MARTIN: Interesting. Laura Burke is a reporter based in Abidjan who covered the elections in the Ivory Coast for the Associated Press. We reached her there. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BURKE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.