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A Decade Later, West African Echoes of Our Own Hanging Chads

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In case you haven't been following closely, the recent elections in the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire, the region's richest country by far, haven't been going so well. While a number of analysts are comparing the current debacle to electoral shenanigans in other African countries, some parallels much closer to home seem equally apt. The farce currently unfolding in Côte d'Ivoire transports me to Florida circa 2000, triggering a familiar chill.

At the cost of some $400 million dollars, footed largely by the United Nations, the most expensive elections ever held in Africa recently transpired in Ivory Coast. To the great dismay of the long-sitting president Laurent Gbagbo, he didn't win them. That honor went to Alassane Draman Ouattara, or ADO, leader of the opposition party and in every way Gbagbo's foil: ADO's businessman to Gbagbo's professor; Muslim to Christian; northern to southern. ADO's wife runs a well respected foundation for children; Gbagbo's wife dons tracksuits and bling to rap on national television. "Yo, yo, yo, this is for the youth of Côte d'Ivoire." (Yes, she really made that commercial.)

Upon learning of these displeasing results, Gbagbo first tried to block their publication; his supporters at the Independent Electoral Commission crumpled, then tore up the election results as they were being read on live national television. Next came brutal attacks on one of ADO's campaign offices, leaving several dead and more wounded. But once the results had managed to squeak their way to public attention, the winner was clear: ADO, 54 percent, Gbagbo, 46 percent.

Gbagbo didn't panic. He simply called up his close friend, the head of the Constitutional Council (conveniently appointed by Gbagbo himself), to invalidate the results, jigger the numbers, and announce Gbagbo the "real" winner.

It all seems like a pathetic send-up of democracy, but who am I to judge? Some ten years ago, did we not experience something similar right here in the United States? In November 2000, I remember clicking off my radio, on which a presenter had just announced that Al Gore had won Florida and thus the presidency, and going to bed. When I woke up, I learned that Fox News had reopened the election and rewritten history.

The parallels are disconcerting. Were the actions of Gbagbo's henchmen on the Independent Electoral Commission any less egregious than those of Katherine Harris as she took the stage to patronize the American public? How different is Côte d'Ivoire Constitutional Council from our own Supreme Court, the majority of whose members took upon themselves the task of appointing America's presidency to the son of the man who himself had appointed some among their ranks? What is saddest to me is that some Ivoirian diplomats are using the American example to justify Gbagbo's dangerous transgressions.

I don't mean to take the analogy too far. For starters, there was no bloodshed on account of the 2000 American presidential election. Gore, ever the gentleman, chose to preserve peace rather than to pursue justice. But for Côte d'Ivoire, we don't know just how far Gbagbo -- who, we should remember, actually lost -- is willing to take what we have seen is his murderous thirst for power. Whether or not democracy was bolstered or undermined in the American scenario will remain a flashpoint for historians for years to come, but it is already clear that Gbagbo has made a mockery of the institution.

But the starkest difference that I can see is the role of the United Nations, which is showing good sense and good leadership in supporting ADO's evident victory and refusing to kowtow to Gbagbo's delusions. When footing the monstrosity of a bill for the Ivoirian elections, the UN insisted that it receive copies of the voting record simultaneously with the country's electoral officials. That move turned out to be a smart one, meaning that Ban Ki Moon can now endorse ADO's win with certainty. What would the world look like today if Florida's votes had been backed up to an international server for independent verification? Would Kofi Annan have called up Al Gore to congratulate him on the presidency, even after five justices had muddled their way through a decision obscenely justifying their right to determine the future of the American presidency? Isn't it pretty to think so?