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Ivory Coast Votes in Tense Election

July 7, 2002

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Angry crowds gathered outside polling stations Sunday, complaining they had not been allowed to vote in local elections meant to close the door on years of turbulence in this West African country.

The elections reignited political and ethnic tensions that exploded after the country’s first military coup in 1999 and shattered Ivory Coast’s reputation as an oasis of stability in a war-prone region.

The voting was tinged with acrimony and hampered by inefficiency, but there were no immediate reports of violence.

Some polling stations in the commercial capital, Abidjan, opened up to four hours late because of delays in the arrival of voting materials and personnel. Among them was the school in the upscale Riviera neighborhood where President Laurent Gbagbo cast his ballot.

Voters were selecting members of 58 new district councils intended to decentralize authority and fight poverty in the country of 16 million people. Each council has between 30 and 45 members.

About 5 million people were registered to vote, but it was not clear how many of them received new identity cards in time.

The national electoral commission ruled that people could only use the most recently issued identity cards to vote.

``I was not able to vote because I do not have the green identity card,″ said Affoue Koffi, a domestic worker who stood outside a polling station in the dusty, shack-lined streets of Abidjan’s Abobo neighborhood. ``I am Ivorian. ... That makes my heart sore.″

The commission’s ruling had inflamed political rivalries before the poll in this former French colony.

Campaign clashes last month in the central town of Daloa killed at least four people. Hundreds more, mainly from Muslim ethnic groups of northern Ivorian and Malian origin, were driven from their homes in the mostly Christian and animist surrounding region.

Opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara said about 40 percent of voters do not have the new identity cards and accused Gbagbo’s government of trying to shut out his mostly northern, Muslim supporters.

Ouattara called on voters to cast ballots with the documents they used in previous elections, and two of the three other major political parties did the same.

Gbagbo, who draws his support mainly from the Christian-dominated south and west of the country, insisted the rules must be followed.

Across the country, there were reports of angry and disappointed people being turned away from the polling stations. Crowds of up to 50 people gathered outside stations in parts of Abidjan chanting: ``We want to vote.″

``I came with the identity card I used to vote in the previous elections, but I was not allowed to vote,″ said tailor Drissa Kone, waving his documents outside a polling station in Abobo. ``I don’t understand.″

Not all Ivorians complained.

``I came in with no problem. I showed what I needed to show, and it was fine,″ said Philibert Konan, who was voting in Abidjan’s crowded Yopougon district.

Pre-election tensions were also inflamed by a recent court decision to confirm Ouattara’s Ivorian citizenship.

Ouattara, a former prime minister, was barred from running in flawed presidential elections in 2000 because of doubts about his nationality.

The vote, which brought Gbagbo to power, sparked ethnic and religious fighting that killed hundreds of people.

Sunday’s election was the last in a series of votes to restore civilian rule after the 1999 coup, and was seen as a test of whether Gbagbo’s government had ended the cycle of violence of the past two years.

``It is better to vote than to fight,″ Gbagbo said after casting his ballot.

Voting was slow in most places, with few signs of the election away from the polling stations. The markets and streets of the working-class neighborhoods were full of people shopping and selling.

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