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Warning issued on Ivorian elections

By Thierry Ogier
25 May 2010

Ivory Coast’s president Laurent Gbagbo was urged Wednesday to set a date for elections in order to ensure that an IMF debt relief programme goes ahead without delay

Ivory Coast’s president Laurent Gbagbo was Wednesday urged to set a date for elections in order to ensure that an IMF debt relief programme goes ahead without delay.

Former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, one of the main opposition presidential contenders, told Emerging Markets that “conditions [to hold free and fair elections] have already been met”, and that there was no excuse for postponing them further.

Ivory Coast will qualify for full debt relief once it reaches a completion point – i.e. fulfilled various fiscal and policy criteria – under the Fund’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

Most of the criteria have been met. The IMF last November waived two criteria – on the overall fiscal balance and on the non-accumulation of new external payment arrears – and in March granted additional interim debt relief.

But it is understood that the Fund still sees the lack of elections a stumbling block that prevents the return to stability.

“A date for the elections is expected to be set [...] but may not fall before the second half of the year”, a recent IMF review paper said.

Ouattara’s assessment was harsher. “We have heard all sorts of nonsense as an excuse not to go to the polls. We have had enough,” he told Emerging Markets.

Gbagbo recently visited Ouattara and former head of state Henri-Konan Bédié, who is also seeking to regain the presidency, and “pledged that he [Gbagbo] was in favour of elections by the end of 2010”, Ouattara said.

But now, predicting an election date would be like a “one billion dollar question”, Ouattara said: “We have to avoid military adventures and avoid that violence flares up again in the Ivory Coast.”

Ouattara, a former deputy managing director of the IMF, says he met Fund chief Dominique Strauss Kahn last year to plead the cause of the Ivory Coast recovery and “do everything to give a chance to the country not to carry this debt burden for many years.But it is impossible to come to a conclusion with the Bretton Woods institutions before the elections,” he said.

Ivory Coast’s planning minister Paul-Antoine Bohoun Bouabre told Emerging Markets Wednesday in an exclusive interview that the country is ready to re-engage with international markets, following its civil war. “We will almost have a brand new country,” he said. “As soon as we bring the external debt to a reasonable level, we will go to the external markets to support the needs in infrastructure. It is going to be a great plus,” he said. A five-year, $20 billion investment programme is in place.

On elections, Bohoun Bouabre was non-committal. “The government is not responsible for the electoral process”, he said.

Ouattara questioned the credibility of official statistics and remained highly critical of the current government’s economic management. “Structural reforms have not been implemented in several sectors. Only a democratically elected government would be able to solve these problems.”

By Thierry Ogier
25 May 2010