October 31, 2010 / 1:46 PM / 9 years ago

Ivory Coast calm as voters go to polls

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Millions of Ivorians went to the polls on Sunday for their first chance in a decade to choose a president and observers said the long-delayed vote was proceeding peacefully.

A man casts his vote in Abidjan October 31, 2010. 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. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

The election in the world’s top cocoa-grower is aimed at reuniting a nation split in two by a 2002-2003 civil war and whose once-healthy economy has been hamstrung by political deadlock that has forced six postponements of election dates.

“This is a day of joy. We all thought it would never even happen and now it actually is ... The crisis is finished,” said medical worker George Assamoi, 40, as he waited to vote at a school in the commercial capital Abidjan.

Virtually no public transport and very few taxis were working in Abidjan, whose streets were dotted with the armoured vehicles of UN peacekeepers posted to strategic positions.

“I can see that people have come out to vote massively and there is complete peace that is existing in this centre and also elsewhere that I have visited,” UN force commander Major General Abdul Hafiz said, visiting a polling station in Abidjan.

Voting began at 0700 GMT and after a few hours most polling stations visited by Reuters journalists were open, despite some initial delays. Long lines of voters spilled out onto streets from schools that are hosting polling booths.

“Many polling stations opened so late, even 2 or more hours late because they didn’t have the (ballot book) stickers arrive on time,” noted European Union observer mission head Cristian Dan Preda, adding he had seen no irregularities so far.

The roots of Ivory Coast’s war and the subsequent political stalemate go back to a dispute over nationality and who is eligible to vote in a country whose lush farm land attracted immigrants from across West Africa.

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.

CHALLENGES POSSIBLE

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

Analysts say there is a strong chance that losers will challenge the outcome but for now, candidates said they were happy with the organisation of the election.

“The polls are going ahead peacefully. We are happy,” Bedie told reporters after voting. Separately, Ouattara declared: “I am told things are going fine across the country.”

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 November 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.

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 could be delayed,” said Rolake Akinola, West Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group.

That could depress the price of Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion Eurobond, Africa’s biggest.

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

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

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