Tidjane Thiam, a former boss of banking giant Credit Suisse and favourite to lead Ivory Coast's main opposition party before 2025 elections, drew thousands of supporters on Saturday in his first rally since announcing his candidacy.
He urged 2,000 party chiefs and activists gathered in the capital Yamoussoukro to "remain united" in the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast's (PDCI) goal of returning to power.
Highlighting his banking and engineering background, Thiam outlined a programme that would promote party "decentralisation" and "the autonomy and power" of the activist base.
At 61, Thiam is a relatively young top political figure in the West African nation and is returning after more than 20 years abroad.
Those included heading Switzerland's Credit Suisse from 2015 to 2020, which has earned him criticism from opponents.
"He spent those 20 years working! He has both cultures, it's an asset. He is the only one who can bring together Europe and Africa," said Thiam supporter Guissa Doudou.
Thiam's early career as a government minister was interrupted in 1999 when a coup toppled president Henri Konan Bedie.
The PDCI, once Ivory Coast's sole legal party, has never regained power since and is looking for a new leader after Bedie's death in August at 89.
Thiam is also a great-nephew of Ivory Coast's long-serving first president and PDCI founder Felix Houphouet-Boigny.
His backers believe he can rejuvenate the party and then the country with a tilt at the 2025 presidential election.
"Our political class must be renewed," said Lazare Ahizi, a PDCI delegate from the southern Grand-Lahou region. Thiam "is a real reference point and our best chance of returning to power".
Around 50 of the PDCI's 63 lawmakers have announced their support for Thiam in the leadership contest vote on December 16.
His main rival is Jean-Marc Yace, 62, the mayor of a commune in the economic hub Abidjan.