* Any irregularities not seen affecting outcome
* Approval sets stage for Nov. 28 run-off
* Analysts say stakes higher for second round (Adds electoral commission reaction, paragraphs 15-17)
By Tim Cocks
ABIDJAN, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast approved the results of last month’s first-round election on Friday, saying any irregularities could not have affected the outcome.
A run-off will be held on Nov. 28 between the first-round leader and incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his rival Alassane Ouattara, a process meant to reunify the country, the world’s biggest cocoa producer and once West Africa’s brightest prospect.
U.N. mission chief Y.J. Choi was required to sign off on the results according to accords reached to end the political deadlock that followed a civil war in 2002-2003, which left the north of the country in rebels hands.
“After a thorough analysis and evaluation of the final results of the first round ... I have arrived at the conclusion that the process leading to the proclamation of the final results ... was determined through a fair and transparent process,” Choi told a news conference.
Choi said he was “absolutely sure” there had been no manipulation and any errors or irregularities were “of such a minor nature as to affect in no significant way the overall results of the election”.
A successful vote will help pave the way for much-needed reforms to the cocoa sector and encourage investors to return to a country seeking to diversify its economy.
So far, cocoa future markets have reserved their judgment on the poll, which has had no major effect on prices. Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion Eurobond, has traded with a yield largely unchanged at under 10 percent.
The results of the Oct. 31 first round put Gbagbo on 38 percent and Ouattara on 32 percent.
Henri Konan Bedie, who was third with 25 percent of the vote, challenged the results before they were even announced. The country’s constitutional court rejected the challenge and Bedie has since thrown his weight behind Ouattara.
The pair’s combined first round scores on paper gave them more than 50 percent of the vote. However, there are no guarantees that Bedie’s mainly Christian southern voters will follow his lead and vote for Ouattara, who is from the mainly Muslim north and is perceived to have links to the rebellion despite his denials.
Overall, Choi said state media had guaranteed equal access to candidates and he praised the campaign atmosphere.
“The electoral campaign ... aroused passion and emotions but these were kept in check thanks to the restraint and mutual respect that Ivorians have demonstrated,” he said.
Voter turnout was about 80 percent, one of the highest seen in a genuinely multi-party African election, highlighting the desire of Ivorians to end a political stalemate that has stunted reform and held back the economy.
Responding to Choi’s remarks, electoral commission spokesman Bamba Yacouba told a news conference: “Our objective is to ensure that the anomalies pointed out in the first round will not be reproduced in the second.
“We have taken the steps necessary to ensure this.”
Although the first round passed off peacefully, political analysts say the stakes will be higher for the second round, which will largely hinge on how Bedie’s supporters vote.
In a note issued on Nov. 9, Standard Chartered Bank said there was a significant risk that the stability of the first round would not be repeated in the second.
“The debate between Gbagbo and Ouattara — two figures who have been political enemies historically — is likely to be more intense than the first round, especially if Ouattara’s foreign roots become a key element of the debate,” it said.
Questions of nationality and who is eligible to vote have been at the heart of Ivorian politics for more than 15 years, with many northerners complaining they had been excluded because some had roots outside the country.
The issue was at the heart of the rebellion and delays in holding the election, which took place after five years of stalling. (Additional reporting by Ange Aboa; writing by David Lewis; editing by Andrew Dobbie) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/)