|President Laurent Gbagbo, who is running for re-election, has been in office since 2000 [Reuters]
Residents of Cote d’Ivoire have begun voting in the country’s first presidential election in 10 years, just one month after a contentious 5.7-million-person voter list was approved by the government.
Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege, reporting from the main city of Abidjan, said there was a large voter turnout in the first hours of polling on Sunday.
“When we got here this morning, hundreds of people have turned out to express their democratic will, their right to vote. It’s been 10 years since Cote D’Ivore had an election and there’s been years of wrangling of the electoral register, the eligibility of some people to vote.
“The feeling was that there were many illegitimate people on the voters’ list. Now all parties have come together, the voters’ register has been agreed and the election is ongoing,” she said.
President Laurent Gbagbo, who was elected to a five-year term in 2000 after a coup unseated his predecessor, is facing 13 challengers.
Gbagbo’s opponents personify some of the most sensitive issues facing the country: One of them, Henri Konan Bedie, is the man who lost his job in the 1999 coup that set off fighting and was only resolved in 2007; another, Alassane Ouattara, was excluded from elections in 1995 and 2000 because of allegations that he was not actually an Ivorian citizen – a hugely controversial issue in the country.
As political campaigns wrapped up ahead of the poll, supporters held massive rallies for candidates in Abidjan as people celebrated the 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.
Gbagbo, a member of the Ivorian Popular Front party, dissolved the government and election commission in February amid allegations that hundreds of thousands of foreigners had been included on the voter lists. The issue of who among Cote d’Ivoire’s 20 million residents is a true citizen has been a source of conflict since the 1960s, when the newly independent and relatively stable cocoa-producing nation began attracting masses of foreign workers.
Bedie, president from 1993 until his ouster, has been a strong proponent of the concept of Ivorian-ness and was the one who banned Ouattara in 1995. Ouattara has been accused of having one parent from Burkina Faso, but newly amended Ivorian laws allow residents with only one Ivorian parent to claim citizenship.
Young-jin Choi, the UN mission chief in Cote d’Ivoire, 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.
Fears of violence
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. During the last presidential election, gangs of machete-wielding youth roamed the streets to enforce order.
“There’s concern that if there is not a clear winner, which means one of the candidates getting fifty per cent or more of the vote, there could be tension, there could be violence especially if Ivorians feel that something dodgy is going on, that there’s a lack of transparency about the numbers, lack of transparency about who has won,” Al Jazeera’s Ndege said.
Electoral officials have said results will be out early next week, either on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Gbagbo has said he is less concerned about winning than with how people will react to the election results.
“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 Abidjan were crammed in the run-up to the poll as many people stockpiled food out of 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 Cote d’Ivoire 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 [having] peace here,” Cecile Moboi, a local resident, said.