Ivory Coast legislative polls see thin turnout

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2011 12:14 PM
Ivory Coast legislative polls see thin turnout

Ivory Coast's second national poll in 11 years drew little voter interest Sunday, a stark contrast to last year's massive presidential election which later sent the West African nation spiraling into violence.

The parliamentary election, the first the country has had since 2000, saw voters trickling into polling stations in the commercial capital, the scene of months of violence after the former strongman refused to accept his loss in last year's poll.

Some 1,100 candidates vied for 255 legislative seats on Sunday.

Electoral officials did not release turnout figures Saturday evening, but President Alassane Ouattara said he hoped that more than a third of voters would participate. A spokesman for the top opposition party, which had called for a boycott of the poll, estimated that as few as 10 percent of voters participated.

Officials hope Sunday's vote can bring stability and usher in a period of economic growth in this once-flourishing nation, which is a leading cocoa producer. U.N. and local officials reported no major incidents by the time polls closed.

But the poll was overshadowed by fallout from last year's vote. Former strongman Laurent Gbagbo awaits trial at The Hague over accusations that his forces committed murder and rape after he rejected his loss in the election. His party called for supporters to boycott.

But even in areas supportive of Ouattara, turnout was thin.

In Abidjan's Abobo neighborhood, a Ouattara stronghold, some 20 voters waited for polls to open Sunday morning. That polling station, like others in the city, opened late.

Electoral commission spokesman Baba Coulibaly said polling stations closed on time. He said they would continue to accept voters who were still in line.

Ouattara voted in Abidjan around midday and called on Ivorians to go to the polls.

"In my view, this election is essential because for the past 11 years, Ivorians have not been able to vote for their representatives in parliament," he said. "Today the had a possibility to do so, so they should not miss this opportunity."

The boycott will likely benefit candidates loyal to Ouattara, who took power in April with the help of French and U.N. forces.

Voter Vincent Dano said he voted, but that the political crisis earlier this year may have kept others away.

"I voted. Not a lot of people have," he said. "Many people lost their identity cards during the crisis, so they can't vote."

Government spokesman Kone Bruno said turnout was low because the poll was local.

"Last year there was massive voter turnout because people hadn't voted since 2000," he said.

A spokesman for Gbagbo's party, Augustin Guehoun, said the army under Ouattara's control forced people to vote in some towns in the west and in some pro-Gbagbo neighborhoods of Abidjan. U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure said observers had been in polling stations since 7 a.m. and did not see such acts.

But the boycott and violence during the campaign have cast doubt over a peaceful outcome. The U.N. deployed 7,000 troops to provide security, and 25,000 Ivorian police and military were dispatched to guard the poll.

Gbagbo's party claims the electoral commission is loyal to the new ruling party and will manipulate the results. They also claim that the army under Ouattara's command is leading a campaign of intimidation against their supporters.

But the bigger issue, Gbagbo loyalists say, is the growing sense of "victor's justice" over Gbagbo's treatment. Prosecutors at the war crimes court say about 3,000 people died in violence by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede. Rights groups and the U.N. have said crimes were committed by both sides, but no member of Ouattara's side has been charged.

The boycott is also seen as politically strategic. For months the party has said it would only participate if the government freed Gbagbo and his allies. After their plea was denied, they announced Ouattara's government was not willing to make concessions.