GENEVA — Three days before the recent, highly contentious United States presidential election occurred, another one was held in the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire. The two elections provide interesting comparisons and contrasts. The US and Côte d’Ivoire are obviously vastly different countries, but there are similarities. Both countries are the issue of European colonization, comprising multiple ethnicities, religious beliefs, cultures and many recent immigrants; both suffered civil wars (admittedly, more than a century apart). Both tolerate a raucous and vociferous media.
I worked for the United Nations peacekeeping mission deployed to Côte d’Ivoire after a civil war erupted there in 2002. I was charged with overseeing mission support for national elections that were agreed upon as part of a peace deal. But we could not move the elections forward; we were constantly thwarted by partisan suspicion and hostility. We struggled but failed to find acceptable compromises. After several more years of wrangling, an election was held in late 2010, which opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won. Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, refused to accept the results, even though the UN had independently certified them. What followed was a wave of deadly violence.
Fast forward a decade and President Ouattara faces a similar crisis in reverse. At one point, when he was in the opposition, his party boycotted elections, expressing distrust of the electoral process; the opposition has now adopted the same tactic. Once again, deeply rooted partisanship has undermined confidence in the electoral process. Violence has returned.
Fortunately, across the Atlantic, despite growing political polarization, violence has remained at the periphery of the US election. Even so, I was shocked to see television reports of heavily armed men, not part of the official security forces, seemingly free to patrol outside vote-counting centers. These displays of force may have been given some indirect encouragement by supporters of President Trump, who like him are still casting doubt on the integrity of the Nov. 3 elections — with scant evidence, I should add.
Elections in a democracy depend on trust. When trust evaporates under the pressures of extreme partisanship, elections can no longer serve their fundamental purpose — providing a peaceful way to adjudicate political choice. Voters have to believe that their vote counts and that the electoral results are credible, even if they don’t reflect their particular point of view.
Elections depend on the good faith of those running them and those participating in them. Political polarization diminishes trust both in the management and outcome of an election. We see that in both a well-established democracy like the US as well as a newer one such as Côte d’Ivoire.
So is it possible to build and sustain a platform of trust? Again, the story of the US and Côte d’Ivoire provides an instructive comparison.
Toward the end of the US civil war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, a program of reconstruction was launched. It included an element of physical reconstruction, but it was essentially a political project to reintegrate the Confederate states into the Union and to extend political and social rights to newly emancipated slaves. Although there was some progress (Black Americans were elected to Congress during this period), the program soon fell victim to race-driven politics and was abandoned.
What followed was a systemwide denial of African-American rights that was not reversed in law until 1965, a hundred years after the Civil War ended. Even now, the divides that doomed reconstruction have still not been totally relegated to the past; they continue to cast an umbra over US politics, especially at election time.
After the end of the Ivoirian conflict in early 2011, the government launched a Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was intended to “identify and make recommendations toward the fight against injustice, inequalities of all kind, tribalism, nepotism, the exclusion, as well as hatred in all of their forms.”
The report of the Commission was never published, and the reality of reconciliation has not advanced significantly since. The enmities that led to war have not dissipated; they continue to poison Ivoirian politics and have once again burst open during the recent presidential election.
So what can we learn from these two experiences in navigating elections in polarized societies?
First, let’s remember the words of William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” History casts a long shadow that cannot be easily eluded. We must acknowledge and understand the past but not be entrapped by it. Reconciliation can be a steppingstone toward the trust that makes free and fair elections a viable prospect. But it is not a panacea; reconciliation is about changing attitudes, and that takes time, empathy and perseverance, as the US experience so clearly shows.
Next, institutions count. Independent, impartial institutions are a vital guarantee of electoral integrity. Elections in Côte d’Ivoire (and elsewhere) have been undermined by lack of confidence in electoral management bodies and the courts. That is why the current partisan efforts in the US to cast doubt, without evidence, on the work of its electoral institutions are dangerous and troubling. Building and insulating electoral institutions from partisan pressures (including those generated by traditional and social media) should be a high priority.
Third, principled political leadership matters. Even well-established democracies are vulnerable to the siren song of populism and authoritarianism, particularly when things go wrong, as has been the case lately in several Western democracies — notably heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. Leadership has to engage with all elements of society in searching for principled compromise, which is the lifeblood of democracy. Extreme partisanship, on the other hand, is the death knell of democracy because it does not admit that alternatives are possible.
Finally, all democracies — established or new — have to build and renew the public trust in the practice of democracy, keeping in mind that democracy is always a work in progress.
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