November 26, 2010 / 9:34 AM / 9 years ago

Ivorian rivals soothe hostility in polite TV debate

* Ivory Coast presidential candidates tone down rhetoric

* Violence feared after close second round election

By Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa

ABIDJAN, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Their campaigns were vicious enough to start brawls between rival supporters, but overnight, Ivory Coast’s presidential hopefuls laughed and swapped pleasantries in a TV debate intended to calm nerves.

For weeks, President Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara have used words like snake, liar, putschist or curse to describe each other while urging their supporters to help save Ivory Coast from the other’s evil clutches.

The incumbent president faces the former prime minister and IMF deputy director in a tense run-off on Sunday that is meant to end eight years of crisis since a civil war divided the once prosperous West African nation in two.

But the race too close to call, raising fears of widespread street violence if either candidate disputes the result.

The angry, unemployed youths that make up their militant fan bases clashed in the streets with clubs and machetes this week.

The International Crisis Group warned on Thursday that poll-related violence risked spiralling out of control and derailing the peace process.

Yet all the hostility seemed to evaporate — or at least hide itself — during a two and a half hour live TV debate ending just before midnight on Thursday, in which the contenders shared jokes, discussed judicial reform and even sometimes agreed with each other.

“I am happy that my brother Laurent Gbagbo and I agree on the needed reforms to the justice system,” Ouattara said, before adding that he would pay judges better to end judicial graft.

“We have to give to find paying work for the youth, and I am happy that the Prime Minister sees this,” Gbagbo said later, referring deferentially to Ouattara’s old title. Foreign powers, advocacy groups and the United Nations have heaped pressure on them to tone down their rhetoric and the mediator of the conflict, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, made plans on Thursday to come and intervene.

The debate on state-run RTI ranged over economics, foreign policy, health education and cocoa. They often disagreed but neither seemed to have to upper hand and it never turned into a slanging match.

“It was a very pleasant. I’m really surprised how calm it all was,” said Karim Seguena, 25, a trader, after watching it on a big screen in a bar in the rundown suburb of Yopougon.

It wasn’t hard to detect the bitterness under the surface.

Gbagbo, a southerner, blames Ouattara, from the north, for the rebellion that seized the northern half of the country.

Ouattara says Gbagbo has used the war as an excuse for failing to bring prosperity in the past decade, even though the fighting stopped in 2003. They both alluded to those arguments.

But both used their last word to urge Ivorians to vote in peace.

“I’m reassured,” said Armand Kolia, 29, a computer technician, after watching it on a huge screen in the culture palace. “I hope we can now vote in peaceful atmosphere.” (Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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