Don’t Underestimate Its Significance : Yes, Houphouet-Boigny is still Ivory Coast president, but he had to run for real to keep it

Democracy is dawning in the Ivory Coast, a West African nation that, like most of the countries on that continent, has been ruled for decades by a single man and his party. The parliamentary elections held last week represented the first time in 30 years that voters participated in a multi-party election. It is the first step toward political reform.

President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the only president the country has every known, was reelected last month to his seventh five-year term. He handily beat Laurent Gbagbo, a history professor, in what was the first contested presidential election held since the nation gained its independence from France in 1960.

Houphouet-Boigny’s ruling Democratic Party dominated the voting in the parliamentary election on Monday and captured the overwhelming majority of the 175-member Assembly. But the returns were no clean sweep. The main opposition party won nine seats. The victors included Gbagbo, a persistent critic of the president who spent six years in exile because of his views. Another winner was Francis Wodie, a former president of Amnesty International. His victory is also significant because the opposition parties had little money or access to the voters through the government-dominated media.


Like many African leaders, Houphouet-Boigny’s rise to power has paralleled his nation’s independence movement. He has ruled over a country that had been considered one of Africa’s strongest economic success stories. That reputation changed--and the political unrest heated up--when cocoa prices fell steeply. As the economy soured, Houphouet-Boigny promised economic and political reform.

To shore up the economy, the president put Alassane Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund top executive, in charge. Ouattara is also part of the reform. The president recently appointed him to the new position of prime minister, where he can help nurture the first blooms of democracy in the Ivory Coast.