Ivorians will vote on Sunday in their first presidential election in more than a decade, one they hope will draw a line under years of war, instability and under-investment in their once prosperous West African nation.
The poll is meant to reunite Ivory Coast after a 2002-3 war split it in two, with part in the hands of rebels. A successful vote is seen as essential for it to retake its place as the region’s main shipping and economic hub — and keep its place as the world’s leading cocoa producer.
If it goes smoothly, analysts expect it will unblock foreign investment in construction and telecoms and enable reforms to an ailing cocoa sector that feeds 40 percent of world demand, Reuters reports.
It may also trigger a rally in Ivory Coast’s US$2.3 billion Eurobond, Africa’s largest and one of its most high yielding, issued in April in exchange for defaulted debt.
President Laurent Gbagbo faces opposition challengers Henri Konan Bedie, a president from 1993 until he was ousted in a 1999 coup, and Alassane Ouattara, a northerner excluded from two past polls because he was accused of being a foreigner.
The race is likely to be close, with no outright winner, and Ivorians are bracing themselves for violence should it be contested, as was seen in its last two presidential polls. UN officials and foreign powers have been heaping pressure on all candidates to quickly accept the result — whatever it turns out to be — and to resist the urge to cry victory early.
If no one wins outright, electoral officials loosely aim to hold a second round by the end of November.
“The Ivorian government, the candidates, their supporters … have an obligation to ensure that the long-delayed presidential elections are held in a peaceful and transparent manner,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement.
“The people of Cote d’Ivoire deserve a secure environment … and for their choice to be accepted by all candidates.”
“EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE”
Party activists marched, sang and danced through the palm-lined streets of Ivory Coast’s lagoon-side main city of Abidjan on Friday, the final day of campaigning.
The election was meant to happen in 2005. After six missed dates owing to rows over voter identity and rebel disarmament, Ivorians had started to doubt it would take place at all. A deal between Ivory Coast’s political rivals last month over the electoral list cleared the final hurdle.
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT) on Sunday and close at 5 p.m. (1700 GMT), when ballots are to be counted on site. UN peacekeepers will then ship them, some over dirt roads, through dense jungles or cocoa forests, to the electoral commission (CEI) in Abidjan for a second, electronic count.
The CEI has pledged to provide a provisional result within three days, although earlier tallies may come out the evening of the vote.
The latest opinion poll by TNS Sofres this month gave Gbagbo the lead with 46 percent of the vote, short of an outright win, with Bedie getting 26 percent and Ouattara 24 percent.
Hopes for peace are high, despite the risk of violence.
“Everything will change after this election: we’ll have an elected president, peace will come back and investors,” said Abdul Coulibaly, 27, a student in rebel-held Bouake town.
Gbagbo has declared Friday a holiday to allow the last remaining voters to pick up their electoral and ID cards. Faki Konate, in charge of distribution, told Reuters the latest figures showed more than 90 percent had been handed out in Abidjan by October 23 and 70 percent elsewhere by October 25. “By the end of today, we should be close to 100 percent,” he said.
Some 66,000 thousand polling agents are also being trained, and 8,000 troops from rebel and government ranks are being deployed for security, which they hope to finish by late Friday. All other rebel fighters agreed to stay in their barracks.
Another 8,000 UN peacekeeping soldiers and 1,500 UN police have also been deployed, focusing on trouble spots like the west, where rebel factions and pro-Gbagbo militias face off. A French rapid reaction force of a few hundred is in place.