Legislative elections are taking place in Côte d’Ivoire on Saturday overshadowed by a figure in distant Europe – former President Laurent Gbagbo.
Nearly a decade has passed since Gbagbo was forced to leave office by current President Alassane Ouattara before being flown to The Hague to be charged with war crimes.
Acquitted since then but living in Brussels pending an appeal, Gbagbo plans to return home thanks to an olive branch offered by his former rival.
His party for the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) has ended a year-long election boycott and become the engine behind an alliance vying for seats in the National Assembly.
The election “marks the return of Laurent Gbagbo and his political organization in institutional politics,” said Gbagbo’s eldest son, Michel, an academic running for office in Abidjan.
“It must be seen as the return to a calmer democratic life and lasting peace,” he said optimistically.
Ouattara, 79, ignited political unrest last year when he announced he would seek a third term – a system that critics say circumvents constitutional boundaries.
Clashes claimed 87 lives and left nearly 500 people injured, while most of the opposition stumbled on 31 October.
Ouattara won by landslide – but for his critics, the victory had little credibility and the country remained deeply in crisis.
Ouattara sought a way forward and reached out to Gbagbo, signaling his consent for his return home and issuing him a diplomatic passport.
The run-up to Saturday’s vote has seen a shift in Ivorian policy as the well-organized FPI seeks to get the vote out.
Thousands of supporters wearing T-shirts with Gbagbo’s face attended a launch rally in Yopougon last Saturday.
“Gbagbo yesterday, Gbagbo today, Gbagbo tomorrow – Gbagbo forever, otherwise nothing”, the words were on a poster.
The Pro-Gbagbo Alliance, Together for Democracy and Sovereignty (EDS), puts candidates across most of the country.
The left-wing coalition has created an unprecedented electoral agreement with the largest center-right party – the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) under the leadership of Henri Konan Bedie, a former president and former Ouattara ally.
The self-described goal is to gain enough legislative seats to prevent Ouattara and his RHDP party from “consolidating (their) absolute power.”
The RHDP won a landslide majority in the December 2016 legislative election with 167 of 255 seats.
“We do not share the same ideology” with the EDS, said Djedri N’Goran, a senior PDCI official.
“But whether you like it or not, Gbagbo has an aura – there are whole areas, including Abidjan, where it is ‘Gbagbo or nothing’.”
Gbagbo was president from 2000 to 2010, a time of unrest, division and economic destruction in this large cocoa and coffee producer.
He was rejected by force of arms in April 2011 after a month-long conflict that claimed several thousand lives, triggered by his refusal to accept the election defeat in Ouattara’s hands.
His long trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague was due to the accusations that he gave rise to violence after the election.
Despite Gbagbo’s turbulent record, he is a happy and inspiring figure for many Ivorians, says political analyst Rodrigue Kone.
He likened Gbagbo’s odyssey to “a poor child fighting the bourgeois system represented by leaders of aristocratic families.”
Reconciliation Minister Kouadio Konan Bertin last month hailed Gbagbo, 75, as “an important player” in national politics, “whose views should be taken into account.”
Exactly when Gbagbo will return is unclear.
The ICC has authorized him to make foreign trips if the host country accepts him, pending the outcome of the appeal, which is due on 31 March.
He previously said he hoped to return in December, but his increasingly frustrated supporters now say it will be mid-March and have set up a committee to prepare for a spectacular welcome.