Ivory Coast Holds General Elections
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ With most candidates barred, the two largest parties boycotting, and a military ruler seeking to entrench his power as a civilian, residents of this West African nation trickled to polling stations Sunday to elect a new president.
The voting came 10 months after an army coup brought a junta to power, sparking a series of political crises and leaving this nation’s reputation for political tranquility in shreds.
Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei faces serious competition from just one of his four opponents in the controversial vote; history professor and longtime opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo.
Most candidates, including those from the country’s two largest political parties, were disqualified last month by the Supreme Court.
The United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the European Union and countries such as the United States and Canada have withdrawn election observers or funding, saying the exclusion of major opponents have made a truly free and fair election impossible.
Although national figures were not yet available, voting appeared light at polling stations in a number of Ivorian cities, with most reporting less than 30 percent turnout by early afternoon. Voters were nearly nonexistent in many parts of Korhogo, the main city in the north and a stronghold of support for the now-disqualified opposition leader, Alassane Dramane Ouattara.
``As you can see, the north is sleeping through this election,″ polling worker, Drissa Dialo said at one empty voting station.
Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans (RDR) and the former ruling Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI), whose candidates were also excluded by the court, have both called for a boycott of the polls.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court has close ties to Guei, who had insisted in December that he would quickly cede power to a civilian.
``The general came to sweep the house (clean), but he didn’t leave, he didn’t keep his promise,″ said Bema Coulibaly, a Korhogo resident who said he wouldn’t be voting Sunday.
Campaigning has been muted in Ivory Coast. Guei (pronounced GAY-ee), whose own soldiers have staged two mutinies since the coup and who, officials say, survived an assassination attempt in September, has barely appeared in public, apparently fearful of his security.
But while he has thrown the weight of the junta behind his election, Guei has insisted he will step down if he loses.
``Ivory Coast is a country of peace, where everything takes place in serenity,″ he said Sunday after voting amid heavy security at a primary school near his house, in an upscale Abidjan neighborhood.
Guei has seen his popularity wane since the December coup, when cheering crowds filled the streets of some neighborhoods to welcome the ouster of President Henri Konan Bedie, who was widely seen as corrupt and ethnically divisive.
But for some Ivorians, Guei is still seen as the only candidate who can control Ivory Coast’s politically divided and often-thuggish security forces.
``Without him, there would have been civil war,″ said Nicodeme Zan, a voter in Abidjan.
Gbagbo (pronounced BAHG-bo), for his part, said he believed most of Ivory Coast’s 5.5 million registered voters would oppose Guei, who for many remains a soldier _ albeit one who now sports a suit and tie.
``In Ivory Coast’s present state, I find it unlikely that they will vote in a military man to head the government,″ he said just before casting his ballot.
Many of his supporters are already referring to Gbagbo as ``president,″ and some have warned they will take to the streets if he is not declared the winner.
``The soldiers have done their job now and they must go back to the barracks,″ said Jean-Pierre Nassoue, 35, who writes for a true-crime magazine. ``It doesn’t matter who wins, just not a soldier.″
Ouattara, the country’s best-known opposition candidate, was excluded after the Supreme Court said there were questions over whether both his parents were of ``Ivorian origin,″ as a new junta-backed constitution requires.
The past year has seen Ivory Coast suffer through a series of crises, including the two military mutinies and a further erosion of the country’s economy, already battered by a steep decline in prices for its primary exports, cocoa and coffee. The instability has frightened Ivorians and foreign investors alike.
To win Sunday’s election, a candidate must capture more than 50 percent of the vote or a run-off will be held 15 days after the first-round results are officially declared.
Early results from the election are expected late Sunday or early Monday.