This time is for real. At least, that’s what people here say. “Ca va se passer! It’s going to happen!” The new national photo ID cards and voter registration cards have been successfully distributed. A current of hopeful excitement runs through the largest city, Abidjan. But there is also a current of nervous fear. So many things can so easily go wrong.
One schoolteacher, drafted to work at the polls, said she would have preferred to vote early and then stay home. But she felt she had no choice. She is hoping the UN peacekeepers will be in her neighborhood, which is densely populated and politically divided.
So goes Abidjan, so goes the election, say observers, because 30% of registered voters live in the sprawling port city. Half of those urban voters are under 35. And nearly half of those are unemployed.
There are fourteen candidates for president, but three front-runners—incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, former president Henry Bedié, and former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, known as Ado. Each candidate has a symbol for illiterate voters: Gbagbo, who smiles confidently in every photo, has two fingers raised in a victorious V. Ado has a round thatched roof hut like you see in northern villages. Bedié has an elephant.
The other eleven candidates, including one woman, a former Minister of Justice (clasped hands), and a popular comedian (a smiling mouth), are campaigning hard. They are positioning themselves for the run-off. Felix Akoto-Yao, an independent (the blue rooster), was holding a rally in the central city of Bouaké when I passed through. Like all the others, he stressed job creation for the young. He had no T-shirts to give out; the money, he said, could be better spent elsewhere.
When I asked a member of his campaign if Akoto-Yao had a chance without a party behind him, he played the anti-incumbent card. “Better an independent,” he responded. “My candidate hasn’t had any part in Ivorian politics.”
In Bouaké, a city caught in the middle during the civil war, black oil had been poured over the smile of the current president on every one of his shiny blue billboards.
“We are all tired of this,” the candidate said into his microphone, and the crowd murmured in assent. It’s the dominant refrain of the election. “We are worn out.” Worn out with political conflict, worn out with partition, with corruption, with our economy stuck at a standstill. Worn out with their political leaders.
But Ivorians are not worn out with the election. Volunteers sing and hand out T-shirts. There are substantive debates on television. A different candidate answers questions from journalists for an hour and a half every night.
The questions are tough: How will you end corruption? How will you create jobs? We haven’t yet heard the Big 3 but the others speak frankly. Tourism? Low on my list. Our people need to eat. Foreign investment? Investors won’t come until we have a transparent judicial system. Social security accounts. Education accounts. Railroads. Taxes--for education. Lower taxes for youth and women. Regional universities. More women in government. The ideas of the future float up into the cloudy Ivorian sky…no matter what happens on Election Day, these ideas have been heard and they won’t go away.
This commentary aired on Illinois Public Media WILL AM 580 on October 28, 2010. You can download the podcast there.