Ivory Coast has extended until Feb. 14 a deadline for finalising voter lists, a step which observers said made it all but impossible to stick to a March schedule for a presidential election.
The divisive issue of voter eligibility is the latest obstacle to long-delayed polls aimed at ending instability in the world’s No. 1 cocoa grower, split by a 2002-2003 civil war.
“This decision is in response to concerns expressed by the political class and civil society, who want more time to clear up questions over the election lists,” the election commission and prime minister’s office said in a statement dated Feb. 2 but sent to the media yesterday.
No target date for the election was given. The vote was first set for 2005, but has slipped repeatedly, and most recently was informally set for sometime in March.
The United Nations has said it will take at least six weeks to organise a poll once the final voter list has been agreed on.
Those monitoring Ivory Coast’s tortuous road towards elections said the latest delay meant the possibility of an election in March, agreed on by all sides during the latest round of talks, was unlikely, if not impossible.
“Six weeks just about works but it does seem bit tight,” said one foreign diplomat, who asked not to be named. “This assumes that everything goes according to plan.”
Patrick N’Gouan, head of an umbrella group of civil society organisations, was more pessimistic.
“The extension will weigh on the timetable. If we allow the (election commission) to work, and it is not reorganised like the presidential camp wants it to be, elections could take place in May,” N’Gouan told Reuters.
The extension follows a row between the election commission and President Laurent Gbagbo over hundreds of thousands of extra names incorrectly put on a draft version of the election list.
Gbagbo’s party wants election chief Robert Mambe, a political appointment handed to the opposition in the peace deal meant to lead to poll, removed from his post and prosecuted for fraud after 429 000 contested names were found on a poll list.
Mambe accepts an error was made but refuses to step down.
Technical work to clear up the lists has continued but diplomats warn the dispute needs to be resolved ahead of what is likely to be a hotly contested poll.
“The great debate is still around whether Mambe should go and the politicians will have to sit down and work out what they are going to do,” the diplomat said.
Although still the world’s top grower, analysts warn Ivory Coast’s cocoa output is falling due to mismanagement and lack of investment during the crisis. Quick and peaceful polls are seen as a precondition for much-needed reforms.
An end to the uncertainty would also encourage investors to return to a nation once seen as the region’s most stable and let it try to regain its position as West Africa’s economic hub.