November 28, 2010 / 10:07 AM / 7 years ago

NEWSMAKER-Gbagbo plays nationalist card for Ivorian run-off

* Gbagbo campaign stokes nationalist fire

* President remains a master at charging angry crowds

By Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN, Nov 28 (Reuters) - The face of Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo beams down from posters everywhere, but the one that best sums up his nationalist campaign is the one that says: "Laurent Gbagbo, 100 percent for the Ivory Coast."

The implied slur against his rival for the presidency Alassane Ouattara -- that one of his parents is from Burkina Faso -- is not lost on Gbagbo's hardline militant fanbase.

Gbagbo owes his popularity in large part to his skill at projecting himself as an arch nationalist defending Ivory Coast from sinister "foreigners", whether they be Ouattara, former colonial master France or economic migrants from Ivory Coast's poorer, drier neighbours like Burkina Faso or Mali.

"There are two kinds of candidates," he has told several rallies. "One for Ivory Coast, and one for the foreigners."

After presiding over a decade which saw conflict, economic stagnation, crumbling infrastructure and deepening poverty, it is a sign of the ex-history professor's knack for political survival that he has persuaded so many Ivorians to embrace his fiery nationalism and overlook their more pragmatic concerns.

Rebels who tried to oust him in 2002/03, before he drew them into government in a 2007 power-sharing deal, drew much support from northerners who felt Gbagbo's xenophobic policies treated them as foreign because of their ties to neighbouring nations.

In his speeches, Gbagbo shows his skill at connecting with the poor and unemployed, eschewing the polished French he learnt at France's Sorbonne for creolised Ivorian street slang.

Gbagbo, 65, faces Ouattara on Nov. 28 in a decisive second round poll that looks increasingly likely to turn violent.

The stakes are high, with a smooth election seen allowing much-needed new investment in the declining cocoa sector of the world's top grower, and possibly helping Ivory Coast win back its place as a regional commercial and industrial centre.

Despite his self-confidence and charm on stage, many suspect a five-year delay in holding this poll was partly caused by his private doubts about his chances as a candidate from the minority Bete tribe whose popularity, especially in Ouattara's heartland in the north, is patchy.

Much will depend on how the Baoule tribe of third placed candidate Henri Konan Bedie vote in the final round.

THE "INSIDE" CANDIDATE

Gbagbo rose to prominence as a Marxist firebrand lecturer who challenged the autocratic rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast's first post-independence president. That got him imprisoned in a military camp for two years in 1971.

He took political asylum in France during the 1980s but came back and led street protests that forced the old ruler to allow multi-party democracy in 1990 with an election that Gbagbo lost to him.

Ten years later, thousands of Gbagbo supporters came out on the streets to help oust military coup leader General Robert Guei, accused of trying to rig a 2000 election. In the messy aftermath, Gbagbo took the presidency.

His decade in power has been dominated first by the civil war and then a rocky peace and slow-burn political crisis of a country split into government-held south and a rebel-held north.

Always fraught, Gbagbo's ties with France hit a new low in 2004 when nine French peacekeepers were killed in a government strike against rebels. France blamed his military and retaliated by destroying his airforce.

What happened next revealed a key source of Gbagbo's power -- the streets. Within days, tens of thousands of his "Young Patriots" -- mostly angry, unemployed youths -- attacked French families and businesses, driving out 8,000 expatriates.

In his campaign so far, Gbagbo has outlined few policies beyond a plan to nearly double Ivorian cocoa output within five years -- a promise which has failed to excite international markets in London and New York.

Instead, Gbagbo has once again been winning over voters with nationalist talk of freeing Ivory Coast from the shackles of France, whom he accuses of backing the opposition and the northern rebels who tried to oust him in 2002.

The rhetoric taps into resentment against the French for their colonial past and xenophobic fears the country is being overrun by migrant farmers from Burkina Faso and Mali. (Editing by David Lewis and Janet Lawrence)

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