ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) - The winner is a given, but Sunday's presidential election still promises to be a watershed that may determine how long the ruling party can control its bogus democracy.

For the first time since independence 35 years ago, voters won't have the lionized Felix Houphouet-Boigny on the ballot. He died two years ago, leaving Henri Konan Bedie to lead the ruling Democratic Party in the face of an increasingly fed-up opposition.

Soldiers and police were on alert nationwide after weeks of scattered clashes that have killed eight people.

At least 18 people, most of them children, were massacred on a plantation in central Ivory Coast a week ago, but there was no indication the killings were related to the election. The site was near Guiberoua, a city considered an opposition stronghold located 160 miles northwest of Abidjan.

Several Democratic Party buildings and schools to be used for voting have been attacked. At some Abidjan schools Saturday, employees rushed to move out desks, books and papers in case of trouble on voting day.

Bedie's most formidable opponents are boycotting the vote, assuring the incumbent a win over lone challenger Francis Wodie of the small Ivorian Workers' Party.

But violence at the polls or a poor voter turnout could signal the end of the docile allegiance the Democrats have long enjoyed and mark the beginning of a new political age _ just what the government does not want.

``We have always been the (African) exception _ the exception that didn't follow military-Marxist regimes, the exception that didn't go the way of coups, the exception that didn't change its name, its flag, or anything else,'' Bedie's campaign leader, Laurent Dona-Fologo, said in an emotional speech last week. ``Today, still, we can claim to be the exception.''

The state-run daily newspaper Fraternite Matin underscored his comments with cartoons depicting some neighbors _ Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Algeria and Angola _ as nightmares of famine, war and ethnic conflict.

It's a powerful message to Ivory Coast's 14 million people _ about one-third of them African immigrants _ who have never seen a war, coup, or major ethnic strife.

Under Houphouet-Boigny's 33-year guidance, Ivory Coast built a cacao and coffee industry that made it one of the world's top commodities exporters and one of the continent's wealthiest countries.

A drop in commodities prices spurred anti-government unrest that forced Houphouet-Boigny to legalize opposition parties in 1990. He won elections later that year with more than 80 percent of the vote and managed to maintain a veneer of democracy while ruling with an iron fist.

Cracks are showing, however, as the less-popular Bedie, who took over at Houphouet-Boigny's death in December 1993, seeks to preserve his power.

At least four journalists have been jailed in the past year after criticizing Bedie, and politicians unhappy with his leadership left the Democratic Party and formed a new one, the Rally of the Republicans, in June.

Opposition marches and rallies, which had been peaceful, were banned Sept. 20, sparking clashes that marked the country's worst political unrest ever.

Even so, Bedie is expected to skate to victory _ and not only because his party is the only one Ivorians have ever seen in power.

An election law Bedie pushed through in December barred the strongest challenger, Alassane Ouattara of the Rally of the Republicans, from running for president because he is only half-Ivorian. Other opposition candidates are boycotting in protest and have urged militants to disrupt the vote.

Bedie's sole challenger, Wodie, is a law professor and human rights activist who founded the Workers' Party in 1990. He wants a new constitution that would reduce the power of the president and central government.

About 3.8 million people are eligible to vote, but elections here have never attracted huge turnouts so it will be difficult to judge the success of the boycott call.

More than 300 international observers were invited to monitor the vote, but at least one group _ the Washington-based National Democratic Institute -- has refused to attend, blaming the political climate.