ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast voters headed to the polls Sunday hoping to put the past behind them as the West African nation held its first presidential election since a disputed vote five years ago triggered violence that killed more than 3,000 people.
Incumbent President Alassane Ouattara was widely expected to prevail over a divided opposition and possibly even secure enough votes to avoid a runoff.
After casting his ballot at a school in Abidjan, Ouattara expressed hope that a smooth vote would allow the country to "erase and forget" the violence that followed the vote in 2010. In that election, Ouattara defeated incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo who refused to leave office, sparking the worst fighting the country had experienced since independence from France in 1960.
"Ivorians want peace," Ouattara said. "They really wanted to move ahead with prosperity, progress, peace and for us to get together and work for the best of the nation."
Ouattara has campaigned on the country's economic rebound and security gains during his tenure, although opponents say he has failed to reconcile the opposing forces in the country or reduce poverty.
Teacher Ouolli Kone said he voted for the president because under Ouattara's leadership his salary had increased for the first time in 10 years, from 250,000 CFA ($420) per month to 312,000 CFA ($520) per month.
Gbagbo's party was represented by former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, though a large faction has withheld its support, claiming N'Guessan is a traitor and that the vote will be rigged. Gbagbo is awaiting trial on crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The third-place candidate in 2010, former President Henri Konan Bedie, has thrown his support behind Ouattara.
Three members of an original roster of 10 candidates have withdrawn from the vote, citing doubts about its fairness.
Many polls opened at least one hour late in Abidjan and other regions as workers waited for materials or struggled with tablets used to identify voters. Officials let polling stations that opened late stay open a bit longer.
More than 6 million voters are registered. Despite some calls for a boycott, Ouattara said early reports suggested turnout was impressive. However, few polling stations in Abidjan experienced long lines Sunday and in the west of the country — a Gbagbo stronghold — some were practically empty.
"Today we in the west have been abandoned. For these elections we are afraid to go vote. I don't know who is going to participate," said Armand Zahui, a farmer in the western city of Daloa.
Low turnout could weaken Ouattara's mandate going forward, said Scott Straus, an Ivory Coast expert at the University of Wisconsin.
The electoral commission is required to announce the vote's results within five days.
Associated Press reporters Isidore Kouadio in Daloa, Ivory Coast, and Nicolas Garriga in Abidjan contributed to this report.