|President Gbagbo, who is running for re-election, has been in office since 2000 [Reuters]
The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire has held a long-awaited presidential election, the first since civil war erupted in 2002 and split the world’s leading cocoa producer in half.
Hopes are pinned on the repeatedly delayed poll to reunite the divided country and restore stability after more than a decade of chaos and tension.
But with former rebels still armed in the north, powerful militias running free in the west and armed groups on all sides who do not want to lose, many also fear the political contest could unleash a new era of chaos.
Some residents have been stocking up on food and fuel, fearing riots or street clashes could break out. However, Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege, reporting from the main city Abidjan, said there have been no reports of unrest during the vote.
“The counting of the votes has already begun. It was a momentous occasion for many Ivorians to finally cast their ballots after a delay of ten years,” she said.
Voting booths opened nationwide, including in the former anti-government stronghold of Bouake in the north and Abidjan.
Voters placed their ballots in clear plastic urns and had their index fingers dipped in indelible purple ink.
Results are expected by Wednesday and vote counting could be highly contentious.
Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, whose official five-year mandate expired in 2005, is facing 13 challengers.
The heavyweights among them are Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who is wildly popular in the pro-rebel north, and Henri Konan Bedie, who was toppled as president n 1999 during the country’s first coup.
If no candidate wins a simple majority, the top two finishers will face off in a second round November 28.
Bedie cast his ballot at a high school in Abidjan’s upper class Cocody neighbourhood, surrounded by bodyguards and a mass throng of journalists. He said elections have been calm and he was “satisfied”.
General Abdul Hafiz, the military head of the UN peacekeeping operations in Cote d’Ivoire, also said voting was calm and people had come out in massive numbers. He said troops were patrolling intensively.
Long lines were reported across the nation. In Abidjan, voters queued up in some places in the pre-dawn darkness as early as 4am.
More than a quarter of Cote d’Ivoire’s 20 million people are foreign immigrants who came to work on cocoa and coffee plantations.
Differentiating them from native Ivorians with roots in neighbouring countries has been profoundly contentious.
Gbagbo’s party believes countless foreigners have falsified documents to vote in an opposition- and rebel-driven bid to skew the poll, while opposition leaders contend the process has merely helped cement legitimate rights to citizenship.
Despite perceived imperfections, though, all parties have accepted the list and the UN – which has around 9,000 peacekeepers in the country- has deemed it “credible”.
Last month, Gbagbo officially validated the final 5.7-million-person voter roll, and only in the weeks since has the government begun handing out millions of new identity cards.
An estimated $400m has been spent identifying voters and issuing state-of-the-art biometric IDs, prompting some observers to call it the most expensive election in the world.