Ivory Coast holds first election since war in 2002

AP News
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Posted: Oct 31, 2010 4:24 PM
Ivory Coast holds first election since war in 2002

Eight years after civil war tore the world's top cocoa producer in two, Ivory Coast finally held a long-awaited presidential ballot Sunday that millions of people here are praying will reunite the country and restore desperately needed stability.

But the West African nation is at a pivotal crossroads: Many also fear the poll could herald a new era of unrest if political rivals, powerful militias or still-armed rebels don't accept the outcome.

"There is a mixture of hope and fear among us all," 50-year-old civil servant Eliane Bah said after casting her ballot at a school in Abidjan, where glass skyscrapers and crumbling apartment blocks overlook a brown lagoon snaking through the vast Francophone metropolis.

"We hope this is the end of the crisis. We're really, really tired of it," she said. But one nagging question remains: "Is this really the end of the war?"

Though voting was peaceful, ballot counting could prove highly contentious. Angry, machete-wielding youth backing both the ruling and opposition parties have a history of taking violently to the streets here when political fortunes don't go their way.

Some residents already have been stocking up on food and fuel, fearing riots or street clashes could break out.

On the eve of the ballot, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro _ the former rebel leader _ called on all sides to accept the outcome. As night fell, vote counting got swiftly under way, and preliminary results are expected by Wednesday, or earlier.

The 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, which prominently deployed several armored personnel carriers Sunday in Abidjan, began helping transport ballot records from 10,000 polling stations after polls closed.

The 65-year-old incumbent, President Laurent Gbagbo, has been in power since 2000, when tens of thousands of militant supporters launched mass protests to prevent the late junta leader Robert Guei from stealing the country's last vote.

Gbagbo's mandate officially expired five years later, but he has stayed in office since, claiming elections were impossible because of a 2002-2003 war that left rebels in control of the north.

On Sunday, he faced 13 other challengers. The heavyweights among them are 68-year-old opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who is wildly popular in the pro-rebel north, and 76-year-old ex-president Henri Konan Bedie, who was toppled in 1999 when the nation's first coup triggered an epoch of turmoil and economic decline from which Ivory Coast has yet to recover.

If no candidate wins a simple majority, the top two finishers will face off in a second round Nov. 28.

Long lines were reported across the nation. In Abidjan, voters queued in some places in the pre-dawn darkness as early as 4 a.m. because "there is a real desire for change," said 56-year-old Mamadou, a retired civil servant who refused to give his full name, fearing repercussions for expressing his opinion.

"People just want this crisis to be over," he said. "We want to move on."

Through years of political stalemate, the northern rebels and their supporters profited handsomely from the gold trade and diamond smuggling. And in the south, exports of cocoa _ the raw material for chocolate _ boomed. Over the last eight years, crude oil exports have risen six-fold to around 60,000 barrels per day.

But crime spiked in Abidjan, where many businesses died off, stagnated or moved elsewhere in the region amid a steady economic decline.

A 2007 peace deal in neighboring Burkina Faso finally broke through the gloom. Soro was appointed prime minister in a unity government. A U.N.-patrolled buffer zone disappeared. And a roadmap for elections was drawn up.

The rebels were supposed to lay down arms, but disarmament never really happened. Instead, the insurgents merely returned to barracks and today still wear patches identifying them as members of the New Forces rebel movement.

In the lawless west, meanwhile, tens of thousands of militias that sprang up during the war still hold such sway they were able to prevent the three top candidates from holding campaign rallies in the western town of Guiglo.

Despite such shortcomings, one major issue at the heart of the crisis was tackled: deciding who could legitimately vote.

More than a quarter of the country's 20 million people are foreign immigrants who came to work on cocoa and coffee plantations in the south. Differentiating them from native Ivorians with roots and names common in neighboring countries like Burkina Faso and Mali has taken years.

"There's been progress, but the identity crisis is not over," said Mamadou. "There's still ethnic and regional discrimination. It exists in people's minds. We see it every day."

Gbagbo's party believes countless foreigners have falsified documents to vote in an opposition- and rebel-fueled plot to skew the poll. Even Ouattara, they say, is not really from Ivory Coast. Ouattara and his supporters vehemently deny the allegations, and contend the process has merely helped cement legitimate rights to citizenship.

Despite perceived imperfections, though, all parties have accepted the 5.7-million-strong voter roll and the U.N. deemed it credible.

Last month, Gbagbo finally validated the list, and only in the weeks since has the government began handing out millions of new identity cards. An estimated $400 million has been spent identifying voters and issuing slick, state-of-the-art IDs.

In a village just outside the former rebel stronghold of Bouake, people waited Sunday in the shade of palm and mango trees to vote in a wood-framed, grass-covered shelter. One of them was N'goran Suzanne Yao, a mother of nine who works at the local mayor's office but has hasn't been paid in months.

"We've waited a long time" for this election, she said. "There will be a change ... if the vote is calm."

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Associated Press writers Marco Chown Oved in Abidjan, Anne Look in Guiglo, and photographer Rebecca Blackwell in Bouake contributed to this report.