* Strong world, regional pressure on incumbent
* Little appetite seen for sanctions on cocoa
* Test case before busy 2011 poll calendar in Africa
By Mark John
DAKAR, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Rarely have world powers and neighbours piled so much concerted pressure on an African leader to quit as Laurent Gbagbo faces after an Ivory Coast poll he is almost universally judged to have lost.
But with Gbagbo determined to stay in power, the stand-off is becoming a test of how far the world is prepared to go to resolve the type of election dispute that has plagued African politics for decades.
“The level of consensus is unprecedented,” Rolake Akinola of political risk consultancy VoxFrontier said of the endorsement by the United Nations, African leaders, Washington and Europe of Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara as winner.
“It will make others elsewhere think hard about what they are going to do,” she said.
With 17 national elections scheduled in Africa next year, it will be the busiest year of voting for the continent since the independence era.
A Nov. 28 poll intended to draw the line on Ivory Coast’s 2002-2003 civil war now risks plunging the world’s top cocoa grower into new conflict after a pro-Gbagbo constitutional body overturned Ouattara’s win on grounds of fraud.
His subsequent swearing-in triggered a diplomatic backlash intended to show, in the words of a senior U.S. State Department official, that “the era of stealing elections is over.”
Suspensions of Ivory Coast by the ECOWAS West African bloc and the African Union suggest Gbagbo -- who already had few natural allies in his neighbourhood -- has been frozen out by peers more completely than even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Defying his demand that the 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force leave, the U.N. Security Council this week extended its mandate for another six months and France is also keeping its 950-strong force in place.
The IMF has said it can only work with a UN-recognised government and donors such as the African Development Bank and World Bank have put programmes under review, potentially depriving Gbagbo of debt relief and lending.
European Union countries have agreed travel bans on Gbagbo, his powerful wife Simone and 17 officials. The United States is looking at a move that could even mean the children of Ivorian officials are ejected from U.S. schools.
But so far Gbagbo appears unmoved, at least officially. A personal telephone call and letter from U.S. President Barack Obama have gone unanswered, while Gbagbo’s interior minister said simply of the EU sanctions: “They make us smile.”
“Ouattara may have the moral high ground, but Gbagbo has all the levers of power,” Stratfor analyst Mark Schroeder said.
He still controls the army, state broadcaster, the bulk of cocoa output and the country’s two main ports.
Views differ on how the coming weeks and months could play out -- assuming all-out civil war does not happen first.
Starving Gbagbo’s government of external funds could stir discontent in the army and civil service if wages do not get paid. Ivorian diplomats and other officials will consider the risk to their reputation of being allied to a pariah regime.
Which way the Senegal-based BCEAO regional bank -- the central bank of the West African franc monetary zone -- swings could be vital. Ouattara has asked it to recognise only his parallel administration as a signatory to transactions. But so far, the Bank appears to be sitting on the fence.
“If the pressure is kept up, sooner or later the (Gbagbo) administration will start to get squeezed,” said Akinola, suggesting things could get tougher for Gbagbo as time goes on.
Others are less convinced but acknowledge that a next possible step -- a sanctions regime on the cocoa industry that supplies around 40 percent of the world market -- is risky.
“Sanction of the cocoa sector could backfire, both on the global markets as well as a prospective Ouattara government,” said African security adviser J. Peter Pham, noting the risk that it could turn cocoa farmers strongly against Ouattara.
But if there is little international appetite for a cocoa embargo that would deny a poor country of a major export earner -- and possibly entail major humanitarian consequences -- there is even less support for armed intervention.
An African Union-led military intervention in the Indian Ocean islands of the Comoros in 2008 to oust the presidential claimant after an illegal election is not seen setting a viable precedent for similar action in 20-million-head Ivory Coast.
If the crisis drags on, the likelihood could grow of talks on possible power-sharing deal, despite the reluctance of the AU and ECOWAS to accept a route followed by Kenya and Zimbabwe after similar disputes.
With 2011 due to see elections in Nigeria, Congo, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda and elsewhere, such a messy outcome is not the best encouragement to Africans who long for the chance to choose their leaders through the ballot box.