Cote d’Ivoire’s two leading opposition figures ended a decade-long political feud on Wednesday by striking a pact to oust their common enemy, President Laurent Gbagbo, at the ballot box.
With the war-torn nation headed for key presidential elections 30 October, four opposition groups -- two major parties and two smaller ones - signed a deal in Paris to join forces in a new coalition called the “Rally of Houphouetistes for Democracy and Peace.”
This provides for the different parties in the coalition to field separate candidates in this year's presidential election.
But if there is no outright winner and the vote goes into a second run-off round between the two leading candidates, the opposition coalition has pledged to unite behind a single contender.
Diplomats say the pact will put strong pressure on Gbagbo, who is not expected to win 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot.
The name of the new group refers to Cote d’Ivoire’s popular first president Felix Houphouet-Boigny. He ruled this once prosperous West African country from independence in 1960 until his death in office in 1993.
The pact gathers together politicians who, unlike Gbagbo, were all once close to the man revered as the father of the nation.
The key leaders of the new group are Henri Konan Bedie, leader of Houphouet-Boigny's Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI), and Alassane Ouattara, who heads the Rally of the Republicans (RDR).
Both men now live in exile in Paris, although Konan Bedie still travels back to Cote d'Ivoire occasionally.
Two smaller opposition parties, the Union for Democracy and Peace in Cote d'Ivoire (UDPCI), founded by the former military head of state, General Robert Guei, and the Movement of Forces for the Future (MFA) have also signed up.
Ouattara, a former prime minister who comes from northern Cote d’Ivoire, has a large support base in the north, which has been in rebel hands since the country split in two in September 2002. Gbagbo’s loyalist army controls the south.
Konan Bedie took over as president after Houphouet-Boigny died and ruled until Guei toppled his government in a 1999 coup. His party commands strong support among Houphouet-Boigny's Baoule ethnic group of central Cote d'Ivoire.
The UPDCI meanwhile has its powerbase in Guei's homeland in the troubled West of Cote d'Ivoire.
The October elections are due to be held under the terms of a peace deal signed by Gbagbo, the New Forces rebel movement and the main opposition parties in Pretoria last month.
The accord states the warring parties must disarm before the country’s 16 million people can go to the ballot box.
The much delayed disarmament process was originally due to begin last week, but is now set to start on 27 June and continue until 10 August.
New group is "a credible alternative"
After a ceremony to sign the opposition pact, Ouattara described the Rally of the Houphouetistes for Democracy and Peace as "a first-rate political instrument that can establish a new course for our country."
"We have an important lever to rally the majority of the people behind us in the next general elections because our rally constitutes a serious and credible alternative," he said.
Diplomats and analysts believe a strong and united opposition would have a serious chance of defeating Gbagbo and his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) at the ballot box.
"It's the best scheme," said editor-in-chief Abdoulaye Sangare of 24 Heures, a newspaper close to the opposition. "These will be historic elections for Cote d'Ivoire and it is imperative that all candidates run. Gbagbo cannot win unless he rigs the elections."
"But I don't think it's an unselfish alliance," Sangare added. "It's realpolitik."
No matter which candidate finally wins the presidency, former rivals Konan Bedie and Ouattara plan to set up a joint government, an opposition insider told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
"Of course they can govern together," he said. "In Ivorian politics, everything is possible."
"A devilish pact"
But Konan Bedie and Ouattara have long been political enemies.
In 1995, Konan Bedie, who was then president, approved a new electoral code specifically aimed at excluding Ouattara from that year's presidential election.
Ouattara, an economist and former senior official of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been handpicked by Houphouet-Boigny to implement unpopular economic reforms during his latter years in power.
Konan Bedie also introduced the now extremely controversial concept of “Ivoirite' (being Ivorian), that stated that presidential candidates had to have two Ivorian-born parents and that barred immigrants of non-Ivorian origin from voting.
Ouattara has been shut out of the last two presidential elections on the disputed grounds that his father was born in Burkina Faso, but, under heavy international pressure, Gbagbo has agreed to let him run in this year's poll.
Ouattara and Konan Bedie were both excluded from the 2000 election. That turned out to be a straight fight between Gbagbo and Guei, who had seized power in a coup a year earlier.
Guei declared himself the winner of the election, but after massive street protests he was forced to step aside and allow Gbagbo to take power.
Guei was subsequently killed by unidentified assassins on 19 September 2002 when a failed coup pitched Cote d'Ivoire into full-scale civil war.
The prospect of a new alliance between Bedie and Ouattara has been the subject of feverish discussions in most local newspapers throughout May.
Notre Voie, the newspaper of the Gbagbo's ruling FPI party described the alliance in an editorial Wednesday as "a devilish pact that is meant to destroy Cote d'Ivoire".
The daily recalled published extracts from a 1999 interview with Konan Bedie said that Ouattara was not a real Ivorian.
"Anyway, Ouattara is a Burkinabe," Konan Bedie said then. "I repeat that the president [Houphouet-Boigny] wanted Alassane Ouattara to concern himself only with the economy."
While most opposition newspapers applauded the idea of the coalition, the independent newspaper L'Inter expressed surprise, saying in covert terms that it smelled of opportunism.
'The PDCI, the RDR and the others say they join in respect of Houphouetist values like peace, love and brotherhood. However, for 10 years, these values have been very rare in the political sphere,' it noted.