ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast residents voted Sunday for local officials in the first government organized polls since deadly postelection violence killed thousands two years ago.
Sunday's polls, however, were boycotted by the opposition party of former President Laurent Gbagbo, highlighting the slow progress of reconciliation in this West African country.
Five months of violence erupted after Gbagbo refused to leave office despite having lost the November 2010 runoff vote to current President Alassane Ouattara. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 people were killed.
The country's U.N. peacekeeping mission said its forces would assist Ivorian security forces in keeping order Sunday.
Albert Koenders, special representative of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said on Friday that the campaign period had been marred by "some regrettable incidents, including unacceptable intimidation in certain constituencies."
A spokesman for Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans political party also warned earlier in the week of a "rise in tension," but voters in the commercial capital of Abidjan said this weekend that the campaign had been conducted peacefully.
Turnout appeared to be low on Sunday. In a section of Abidjan's Yopougon district, a bastion of Gbagbo support, workers at one polling station said they had processed only 10 voters more than two hours after doors opened.
Oumar Kone, a 30-year-old voter, said the boycott and general anxiety about the elections may have affected turnout.
"This is an important election for the youth, but some people are keeping in their mind visions from 2010," he said. "Also, the Gbagbo supporters do not have candidates representing them, so they have no reason to come out and vote."
President Ouattara voted with his wife at a school in Abidjan's Cocody district just before noon. He told reporters he expected the turnout to increase throughout the day.
"The local elections are an opportunity to assess and to reassess the will of the people, and to implement the policies and projects that are wanted by the people at the local level," he said.
Ouattara's government failed to convince Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front political party to take part in the vote earlier this year. Gbagbo's party, the FPI, demanded reforms to the electoral commission and amnesty for crimes committed during the postelection conflict, something the government has ruled out. The party had also boycotted U.N.-organized legislative elections in 2011, and accused Ouattara's government of failing to foster reconciliation.
The government has been criticized by rights groups for only charging Gbagbo supporters in connection with the 2010-11 conflict, as well as subjecting Gbagbo supporters to torture and other forms of maltreatment as part of its response to a wave of attacks on security installations by gunmen last year.
But Gbagbo's party has also lacked a coherent strategy for reasserting itself following the 2010-11 conflict, said Rinaldo Depagne, senior West Africa researcher for the International Crisis Group. Without officials in parliament and in local offices, it will be difficult for the party to take part in national debates, he said.
"If you don't participate in democratic life and political life, what will happen to you? It's a major risk," Depagne said.
Across the country, the race featured contests between Ouattara's RDR and the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, headed by former President Henri Konan Bedie and the most important partner in Ouattara's governing coalition. Bedie backed Ouattara in the November 2010 runoff against Gbagbo, helping put him in power.
A dispute between lawmakers from the two parties was officially blamed for Ouattara's decision to dissolve his cabinet last November.
But even with their candidates pitted against each other in local races, the two parties were likely to continue cooperating regardless of the results, said Samir Gadio, emerging markets strategist at Standard Bank.
"They understand that they need each other to continue to rule the country and that a breakup of the coalition would basically mean that they would eventually.be in a precarious situation," Gadio said. "There is no political party in Ivory Coast that can win elections on its own."
Nearly 700 candidates are listed for municipal seats, and an additional 84 are running for regional seats. Municipal elections were last held in 2001, while regional elections were last held in 2002. Results were expected to begin coming in Monday.