ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Voters in Ivory Coast queued impatiently outside polling booths on Sunday after an overnight curfew delayed the start of a presidential election aimed at ending a decade of political and economic crisis.
Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo faces Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and senior IMF official, in a tight race that has triggered violence and rekindled simmering tensions in the world’s top cocoa grower, divided by a 2002-2003 civil war.
Gbagbo announced an overnight curfew this week after at least seven people were killed in clashes between rival factions and security forces. The curfew ended barely one hour before polling stations were due to open and led to widespread delays.
Along the wide boulevards lined with palm trees in the once prosperous lagoon-side main city of Abidjan, voters queued for hours to cast their ballots in an increasingly tense atmosphere that contrasted markedly to the relaxed mood of the first round.
“The first round was peaceful but now we are afraid things will get hot,” said lawyer Anderson N’Guessan, as he waited to vote in Abidjan’s steamy humidity.
“The atmosphere is awful. See all those military around? It looks like we are back at war,” he said of patrols by Ivorian military police and U.N. peacekeepers.
Gbagbo and Ouattara won 38 and 32 percent of the first round vote respectively. The race to secure the presidency has brought back to the fore a north-south divide that was at the heart of the war and five years of subsequent delays in holding polls.
In Bouake, the main city in the north of the country whose burnt out hotels and looted, weed-covered banks bear the scars of the 2002-3 war that left it in rebel hands, the curfew was ignored by the rebel administration and polls opened on time.
“The stakes are very high. The first round was very good. (But) we have seen some radicalisation,” said Gilles Yabi, an independent political analyst, referring to the risk of clashes.
After talks on Saturday with Blaise Compaore, Burkina Faso’s president and the mediator in the Ivorian crisis, both candidates reaffirmed a vow to accept the results.
But supporters on both sides have a history of taking to the streets for their demands. “I’m afraid we can expect some degree of violence,” Yabi said.
At least three people were shot dead by police in Abidjan on Saturday, a local official said.
Gbagbo’s army chief said on Saturday the curfew would run until Wednesday to help stop further loss of life from clashes.
“We are late because of this curfew, but I think everything is going well,” said Kady Traore, president of a voting station in Abidjan’s crowded, poor suburb of Yopougon.
Gbagbo’s rivals fear the curfew will be used to rig the vote and the electoral commission also expressed concern. Compaore said discussions had been held to soften the measures but he gave no further details.
A successful poll should pave the way for reforms to help an ailing cocoa sector and lead to further investment in a nation that was once West Africa’s brightest prospect but where years of political uncertainty have discouraged investment.
However any protracted violence after the poll could hit the delivery of cocoa to the country’s two main ports.
Ouattara has secured the support of Henri Konan Bedie, who came third in the first round with 25 percent. But doubts remain over whether enough of Bedie’s predominantly southern supporters are ready to throw their weight behind Ouattara, who is from the north and has been accused of backing the rebellion.
Voting will also be closely watched by holders of Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion Eurobond, which traded below 10 percent for the first time following the peaceful first round but has crept back up to around 10.3 percent.
Additional reporting by Alain Amontchi and Ange Aboa in Bouake and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan; Editing by Mark John and Janet Lawrence