Many Ivorians fear the election will be too close to call, leading to violence [Reuters]

The Ivory Coast is set to hold its first presidential election in more than a decade on Sunday.

As political campaigns wrapped up ahead of the poll, massive rallies were held in support for candidates in the main city of Abidjian as people celebrated the coming of a vote that has been postponed six times in the last five years.

Many Ivorians hope the election will help usher in a new era that will ensure peace and bring prosperity to a country that has seen years of civil war, numerous political coups and extreme poverty.

YJ Choi, the UN mission chief, told journalists that the country "is at a historic turning point in the peace process." 

"It shows the will of the Ivorian people and their leaders to find a definitive solution to this crisis," he said.

Laurent Gbagbo, the country's incumbent president and member of the Ivorian Popular Front party, is challenged by Henri Konan Bedie, who was president from 1993 until he was ousted in a 1999 coup, and Alassane Ouattara, a northerner excluded from two past polls because he was accused of being a foreigner.

Violence fears

But many residents worry that tensions heightened by what is expected to be a close presidential race will erupt into serious violence between the political factions or their supporters.

"I was never worried for the electoral campaign. I am not worried for the vote, but as to how the party and the supporters will react to the results announcement. That's what's worrying me," Gbagbo said.

Markets in Abidjian were crammed in the run-up to the poll as many stockpiled on food in fear that unrest could come soon.
 
"The market is crammed since Friday. Everyone is terrified, people are coming to buy up everything to stock it in their homes," Fanny Konate, a local resident, said.

The United Nations has sent an extra 500 peacekeepers to Ivory Coast to beef up security before the election, bringing the number of UN troops in the country to 8,000.

Yet many are hopeful that the poll is also the country's best chance for peace.

"If things heat up we'll drink water. But I know that it won't heat up because we are waiting for this peace for a long time and today the peace is in front of us and we are close to have peace here," Cecile Moboi, a local resident, said.

Source: Agencies