October 30, 2010 / 10:34 PM / 8 years ago

Ivory Coast holds reconciliation poll at last

* Cocoa producer divided by civil war

* Poll meant to end crisis, pave way for reforms

By Tim Cocks ABIDJAN, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast finally holds a long-delayed presidential election on Sunday that is meant to reunite a nation split in two by war and re-launch West Africa’s former star economy.

After six postponements during five years of wrangling between political rivals and former rebels, some 5.7 million people are set to decide who will run the world’s top cocoa producer.

Once rows were overcome over who was eligible to vote and how security would be managed, organisers raced against time to distribute voting cards and train over 60,000 poll workers.

“Everything is in place, everyone is in place ... voting will start at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT),” said Yacouba Bamba, spokesman for the Ivorian election commission.

Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo’s main rivals are Henri Konan Bedie, a former president ousted in a 1999 coup, and Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and IMF official.

The poll is needed to enable reforms to a cocoa sector that supplies more than two-thirds of the market but is in decline.

Partly owing to the regional and ethnic support bases of the three main candidates, outright victory is unlikely in the first round of voting, meaning a runoff should be held on Nov. 28.

Most analysts following the election in the former French colony make Gbagbo the favourite to win that runoff against one or other of his two main rivals.

RUNOFF DELAY?

Although campaigning has been mostly peaceful and the rhetoric been less heated rhetoric than anticipated, there are fears that the compromises made to agree on an election date and voting procedures could be tested once results are announced.

“The election results are likely to be contested and the second round — due to be held on Nov. 28 — could be delayed,” said Rolake Akinola, West Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group.

That could be bad for Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion Eurobond, Africa’s biggest.

Prime Minister Guillaume Soro on Saturday called on all the candidates to accept the results.

Polling is due to end at 1700 GMT, when ballots will be counted in over 20,000 polling stations across the country. Preliminary results will be announced within three days.

Delays in deploying joint security units have led to some makeshift arrangements. Police and gendarmes are in charge of the south while ex-rebels are responsible for the north, which they have run since the war in 2002-2003.

A 9,500-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, backed up by several hundred French soldiers, is on standby in case of any trouble.

Some election observers are concerned that the last-minute rush to complete preparations could leave the process open to challenges by the losers.

Yet, after so many missed election deadlines and deepening frustrations with the process, some Ivorians dare to hope for progress.

“Since the start of campaigning, everything has gone well here in Bouake,” said Abou Cisse, a resident of the northern town, which was a rebel stronghold during the war.

“We will go and vote and, if it is transparent, there will be no violence. Our country wants peace now.” (Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan and Charles Bamba in Bouake; writing by David Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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