ABIDJAN (AFP) – Ivorians voted in local elections Sunday seen as a test for stability in the west African nation amid high tensions in the face of a boycott by the party of former president Laurent Gbagbo.
The UN has appealed for calm after skirmishes during the election campaign, voicing hope that the vote would help put the country on the path to “genuine democracy”.
Voting began late at many polling stations in the main city of Abidjan and other urban centres because of the late arrival of materials or staff.
They are the first such polls in a decade in the world’s top cocoa producer and are being seen as something of a trial run for the presidential election in 2015.
Ivory Coast is still recovering from years of unrest which came to a head when Gbagbo refused to admit defeat in the 2010 presidential vote.
Around 3,000 people died in the ensuing conflict and Gbagbo is now facing trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague.
President Alassane Ouattara’s government is hoping the municipal and regional polls will set the foundations for a fresh political start.
However, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which backed Gbagbo during his 10-year rule from 2000 to 2010 and after his arrest in April 2011, has dismissed the polls as a sham.
It has refused to take part, just as it boycotted parliamentary polls at the end of 2011, though a few breakaway activists are running as independents.
The FPI has demanded a reform of the electoral commission and an amnesty for crimes committed during the 2010-11 election crisis.
It has also called for the release of its jailed leaders, beginning with Gbagbo himself.
About 5.7 million people, out of a total population of some 21 million, are eligible to vote in Sunday’s election, the last before the presidential ballot, when Ouattara is expected to run for a second term.
The polls involve 84 candidate lists in the regional elections, while 659 candidates are standing in municipal elections.
The two parties in power, Ouattara’s Rally of Republicans (RDR) and the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) of former president Henri Konan Bedie, already have an absolute majority in the National Assembly and are guaranteed the lion’s share of regional votes.
But they are also competing against each other in some areas and are up against deeply entrenched independent candidates in others.
The final days of the campaign were marred by clashes in several areas including Abidjan and towns in the west, an unstable region prone to violence.
Harsh language and hate speeches, with “calls for verbal and physical violence”, have raised the “spectre of electoral violence” as in 2010, the Ivorian Movement of Human Rights warned.
In the working class Abidjan district of Adjame, Zakaria Toure said he voted for the RDR candidate but regretted the opposition boycott, telling AFP: “We must have reconciliation, all we have to do is talk to each other, all of us.”
Inza Diomande, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, said the situation would calm down once the army, backed by the UN mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) had deployed.
“Let’s hope Ivorians learn from the past and stay on course for a true democracy,” Robert Koulade, a community leader in the central city of Bouake, said after casting his ballot.
The head of the UN mission, Bert Koenders, called Friday for a “free, transparent, calm and credible” vote, describing it as an “important barometer” for the country.
The “smooth running will help ease Ivory Coast onto the path of stabilisation, normalisation and genuine democracy,” he told reporters.
Polls close at 1700 GMT and final results are expected in a few days.