Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio attends the opening ceremony of the Senate in Yamoussoukro. Picture: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Korhogo, Cote d’Ivoire - Cote d’Ivoire’s introduction of a senate assembly has left many Ivoirians fearing a lurch into a more authoritarian style of government.

The ruling coalition says the creation of a senate will be good for democracy and that a bicameral governing system will enable greater checks and balances on laws that are passed.

The opposition and a significant proportion of the public disagree. Despite being created as part of constitutional reforms that were passed by referendum in 2016, only 42 percent of the population participated in that poll, and so the senate has not yet won broad, public support.

Polls held in March to elect 66 of the 99 senators were boycotted by the opposition, leaving the ruling Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP) coalition to sweep up 50 of the available 66 seats

The remaining 33 senators are appointed by the president, which critics say reflects a lack of democratic process.

In a curious twist, the government has decided to delay filling these positions until a later date, saying it would be better to have the elected senators in place before appointing others.

Ivorian President Ouattara speaks during the opening ceremony of the Senate. Picture: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Blow to democracy

The senatorial elections were unexpected and provided little time for campaigns, stirring questions over the rule of law and the state of democracy.

The constitution stipulates that senatorial elections should be announced through “an organic law,” which would have required a bill passed in parliament.

Instead, it was included in a presidential decree on February 14, and a poll was announced a week later.

The government said it had to sidestep the law because the constitution requires the senate to be filled seven days after the National Assembly’s first annual session, which this year was on 2 April.

Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio, first president of the Ivorian upper house, attends the opening ceremony of the Senate. Picture: Luc Gnago/Reuters

The government did not explain why there was no rush to fulfil these requirements in 2017.

Under the law, the new senators are chosen indirectly by regional and local Councillors. The opposition had counted on participating in local and regional elections set for later in 2018. The results of those polls might have given them some influence over the composition of the senate.

As it was, the senators were selected by local and regional Councillors who were elected in 2013, a poll that the opposition boycotted, meaning no opposition candidates were selected.

The opposition is also upset over the sums of money that will be devoted to the new institution, derided in some quarters as “budget-eating and useless”.

Senegal, which has recently dropped its senate, is reportedly saving around 12 million euros a year now that it does not have to maintain the institution.

The obvious question for many is why a country, where nearly half the population lives in poverty, would spend this money to maintain another legislative body.

Members of the Ivorian upper house attend the opening ceremony of the first Senate in Yamoussoukro. Picture: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Shoring up stability or destroying democracy?

The answer could arguably be part of a political calculation: The institution could be a way to keep the ruling RHDP together.

The coalition is increasingly divided over who will be its presidential candidate in 2020. With another assembly in place, more political posts can be shared among the main PDCI and RDR parties. This could help quell discord in the coalition, where Ouattara’s Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) is seen by many as wielding too much power.

Significantly, the creation of the senate will marginalise Guillaume Soro, the head of the national assembly and former leader of the Forces Nouvelles rebellion. With another legislative branch in place, Soro’s sway over legislation in the national assembly will be reduced.

Soro has been a thorn in Ouattara’s side for some time because of his influence over the armed forces, which are made up of a significant number of former Forces Nouvelles rebels.

In a country that witnessed a long-running political-military crisis between 2002 and 2011, these could be positive moves for stability.

But the population seems far from content: Although no opposition party participated in the senatorial elections, the RHDP lost more than a quarter of the seats to independent candidates. The governing coalition’s weakness was particularly striking in the capital, Yamoussoukro, and the second most populous city, Bouake.

Dissent is growing among those who view the government’s latest strong-arm moves as a threat to democracy. While the government may be aiming to make Cote d’Ivoire more stable, the result could end up being the opposite.

* Jessica Moody is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the War Studies department at Kings College London. She is researching post-conflict peacebuilding in Cote d'Ivoire and will be living there from October 2017- December 2018. Jessica also works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has written reports for IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT's “This is Africa” publication and African Arguments.