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This is what you need to know about xenophobia and this Sunday’s elections in Côte d’Ivoire.

- October 19, 2015
This photo taken on October 27, 2000 shows Ivory Coast’s then-newly inaugurated President Laurent Gbagbo (R) sharing a laugh with his key political rival former prime minister and leader of the Rally for Republicans (RDR) Alassane Ouattara. (JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

With presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire scheduled for Oct. 25, few doubt that incumbent Alassane Ouattara will win another five-year term. The main question is whether he will win in the first round against a fragmented opposition or require a run-off. With the economy booming and thousands of newly-naturalized citizens supporting him, the election is Ouattara’s to lose.

The context is dramatically different from that of October 2010, when elections were finally held after nearly a decade of conflict between Côte d’Ivoire’s predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south. After the polls closed, then-President Laurent Gbagbo, a southerner, and challenger Ouattara, a northerner, both claimed victory. Violence between their supporters left 3,000 dead before Gbagbo was arrested in April 2011 and turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crimes against humanity. Ouattara was inaugurated as president and has received considerable international support, even as opponents argue that his side should also be brought to justice for their role in the violence.

[Who are Ouattara and Gbagbo?]

The roots of the conflict go back to the 1990s, when the transition to multiparty competition unveiled deep divisions over questions of nationality and citizenship in a country with a long history of migration, both internally and from neighboring countries. In this context, anti-immigrant rhetoric became pervasive among Ivorian politicians.

In “Playing the immigration card: the politics of exclusion in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana,” I (Whitaker) posit three conditions under which politicians are likely to exploit the immigration issue: when the costs of immigration become concentrated for key interest groups; when embracing anti-immigration rhetoric will divide the support base of an opponent; and when the backing of anti-immigration groups is necessary to assemble a winning electoral coalition.

These factors help explain the 1990s climate of xenophobia in Côte d’Ivoire. After years of impressive growth, the Ivorian economy crashed in the 1980s, generating frustration among southern cocoa farmers who found themselves competing with migrant farmers from northern Côte d’Ivoire and from neighboring countries.

When opposition parties were legalized in 1990, Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivorien (FPI) seized on this frustration and called for the return of land to Ivorians. Such messages helped chip away support from the ruling Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), which had a long history under then-President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of recruiting foreign workers, especially from Burkina Faso and Mali.

After Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, his successor, Henri Bédié, could not hold together the party’s coalition between politicians from Côte d’Ivoire’s northern and central regions. Seeking instead to mobilize a central-south coalition, PDCI leaders appropriated emerging anti-immigrant rhetoric and formulated the ultra-nationalist concept of Ivoirité.

By defining this concept as southern and Christian, their exclusionary rhetoric targeted both foreigners and northerners. Laws were changed to limit elected office to native-born citizens whose parents also were born in the country, preventing a presidential run by northern opposition leader Ouattara (whose father was reportedly born in Burkina Faso).

Under these conditions, the 2000 election of Gbagbo set the stage for tensions that ultimately generated a civil war between north and south in 2002. Even after a tentative peace in 2003 and a power-sharing agreement in 2007, Gbagbo and his supporters continued to use xenophobic rhetoric in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Fast forward to 2015. Immigration has not been an issue in the current election campaign, mainly because the three conditions outlined above no longer hold.

First, with the Ivorian economy growing at annual rates above 9 percent, indigenous farmers are not experiencing concentrated costs from immigration. Instead, they are generating record cocoa harvests and once again hiring migrant labor. Earlier this month, Ouattara announced a nearly 18 percent increase in the guaranteed minimum price for cocoa, the fourth year in a row in which prices have risen.

With investment also increasing and foreign aid flowing into his government, Ouattara is developing a system of patronage politics reminiscent of the Houphouët-Boigny era. In this context, politicians are seeking credit for success, not scapegoats to blame.

Second, immigration is no longer an effective wedge issue for opposition politicians to exploit. After having fought (and, with Ouattara’s election, effectively lost) a civil war over issues of identity and citizenship, opposition politicians appear reluctant to talk about immigration at all. From the elite level down, Ivorians are tired of violence and the xenophobic rhetoric that helped fuel it.

Even if anti-immigration rhetoric could be a winning strategy, the opposition is too divided to mount much of a challenge against Ouattara. With Gbagbo awaiting trial in The Hague, his supporters are split on whether to even participate in elections. His FPI party boycotted legislative elections in 2011 and local elections in 2013, leaving it marginalized politically.

[Is the International Criminal Court targeting black men?]

Party moderates have opted to participate in the 2015 poll to avoid irrelevance, but hardliners still plan to boycott. Former President Bédié, who finished third in 2010 and endorsed Ouattara in the run-off, decided months ago to support Ouattara again this year. His decision was opposed by others in the PDCI, some of whom are backing rival candidates. With the opposition divided both politically and strategically, it has little chance of exploiting the immigration issue.

Third, pro-immigrant constituencies have become more important than anti-immigrant groups for building a winning electoral coalition. Ouattara’s government is founded on the support of northerners and immigrants from neighboring countries whose nationality was questioned over the past two decades.

After Gbagbo fell in 2011 and his supporters were imprisoned or exiled, Ouattara and his allies secured control of every state institution, including the National Assembly and the electoral commission. They easily amended or replaced nationality and land laws that had been at the core of the political crisis since the 1990s.

The government also facilitated the mass naturalization of more than 140,000 individuals, many of whom were born in Côte d’Ivoire but were previously denied citizenship and property rights. With Ouattara in control of the political machine and demographic numbers increasingly in his favor, anti-immigration rhetoric is no longer a winning strategy.

The coming elections are expected to be relatively peaceful, but the big question is whether Côte d’Ivoire has faced its ghosts and tackled what was at the core of its grave crisis. Land disputes have yet to be fully resolved, and there remain legitimate policy debates around issues of nationality and citizenship.

With anti-immigrant sentiments often intensifying near elections, there is still a chance that opposition politicians will make a last-ditch attempt to mobilize around this issue.

Indeed, recent events suggest some effort to bring a voice to Gbagbo’s silenced supporters, who represented 45 percent of voters until his party started boycotting elections. These groups do not have the means to stir up an armed rebellion, however, and their discourse is unlikely to sway the upcoming election.

The real opening will be five years from now, assuming Ouattara respects constitutional term limits and steps down. The next generation of Ivorian politicians—which includes people such as interior minister Hamed Bakayoko, PDCI lawmaker Kouadio Konan Bertin, National Assembly president Guillaume Soro, and economist Mamadou Koulibaly—has been waiting for its chance, and will compete fiercely with one another for power.

Whether immigration becomes a hot-button issue in 2020 will depend on how the economy does over the next five years, how land and nationality questions are resolved, if at all, and on whether candidates believe they can assemble a winning coalition by revisiting these debates.

Beth Elise Whitaker is associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Koffi P. Charles-Hector Yao-Kouamé is a graduate student in Latin American Studies and Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and is originally from Côte d’Ivoire.