In most elections, the person who collects the most votes is declared winner and takes the office that was contested. Not in the Ivory Coast. There, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to leave office after losing to former Prime Minister Alessane Ouattara.

The result has been a protracted civil war that has claimed hundreds of lives and forced as many as 1 million people from their homes. An end may be in sight as Mr. Ouattara’s forces have broken the stalemate and taken control of much of the country. But Ivory Coast remains polarized and the new president will have to heal its deep and enduring divisions.

Mr. Gbagbo has been president of Ivory Coast since 2000. A respected opposition politician at the time, he took office after a contested election that the then president, Mr. Robert Guei, claimed to have won. Mr. Guei was run off by opposition protests who claimed he stole the election. Mr. Gbagbo was installed as president a week after the ballot.

A coup against Mr. Gbagbo was launched two years later. It ultimately failed, but it triggered a civil war that raged for two years and concluded in a messy ceasefire. The president’s term expired in 2005, but elections scheduled for that year were postponed as a result of the ongoing war; Mr. Gbagbo kept putting them off until the ballot was held late last year. There were two rounds of voting, but the long slate of candidates kept anyone from claiming a majority. Mr. Gbagbo prevailed in the first round, forcing a runoff between him and Mr. Outtara.

That vote, held a month later (late November), produced contested results — each candidate announced he had won. The entire certification process descended into farce: At one briefing by the national election commission, a pro-Gbagbo supporter seized and then tore up results before they could be revealed. After the commission, an ostensibly independent organization, announced that Mr. Outtara had won — an outcome that was certified by the United Nations — the president of the constitutional council ruled those results were invalid and the next day declared Mr. Gbagbo the winner.

Since the election, Mr. Outtara has been a virtual prisoner in a hotel in Abidjan, the commercial center of Ivory Coast: He has been surrounded by troops loyal to Mr. Gbagbo and protected by U.N. peacekeepers. He set up a radio station in the hotel and has been making regular broadcasts to the public. Forces loyal to him have seized control of large swaths of the country, including the capital Yamoussoukro, but Abidjan is still contested. That situation may not last as the president’s troops begin to defect. The army chief of staff deserted last week, as has the head of the military police, signs that the loyalty of the security forces may soon shift. Mr. Gbagbo still has deep pockets of support in the city, however, with several youth militias providing considerable firepower. There are reports that unidentified gunmen released inmates from the country’s largest prison, a desperate move to sow confusion and destabilize the country.

Mr. Outtara enjoys broad international support. His election victory was recognized by the U.N., the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, along with other international monitoring groups. The U.N. has backed its call for Mr. Gbagbo to step down with a freeze on his foreign assets and a travel ban on him, his wife and his top aides.

On Monday, U.N. peacekeepers and French forces started attacking Mr. Gbagbo’s strongholds in Abidjan. Sadly, the most important determinant of Mr. Gbagbo’s future is likely to be the crumbling support of his institutional base within Ivory Coast rather than the legitimacy he enjoys domestically and abroad.

In short, brute force continues to legitimize authority, not the other way around. That is a sad commentary on affairs in Ivory Coast and within Africa (and wherever such a situation exists). The crudest measure of its significance is the 500 lives that have been lost as a result of violence in recent months and the estimated 1 million people who have been forced to flee their homes.

That is a story that has been told several times over in Africa. It is the narrative that has prevailed in Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe remains in power courtesy of single-minded efforts to exterminate any and all opposition to his rule. Events in Libya and Yemen follow the same logic — there, the leadership has not even attempted to hold free and fair elections for fear of the results.

Ivory Coast is best known for being the world’s leading producer of cocoa. It could, however, become known as the place where African nations drew a line in the sand and refused to tolerate the crude exercise of power politics on their continent. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan explained last month the importance of developments in Ivory Coast: If Mr. Gbagbo wins, then “elections as an instrument of peaceful political change in Africa will suffer a serious setback.”

The legitimacy of that process will be further enhanced if Mr. Outtara can unite his nation after years of civil war and end the grievances that have corrupted the hopes of many Ivorians. It is a difficult task in the best of times and one that has become even harder in the aftermath of this vote. International help cannot end when Mr. Gbagbo leaves office. Mr. Outarra will continue to need support and assistance.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.