Voters in Ivory Coast awaited the outcome of a presidential run-off meant to end a decade of instability, but reports of violence and accusations of voter intimidation created an atmosphere of tension and fear.
The electoral commission said it had finished counting ballots after the polls closed at nightfall but would not make the result public until until Monday.
Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo faces Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and senior IMF official, in a tight race that has triggered conflict and rekindled simmering tension in the world’s biggest cocoa grower.
Five members of the security forces were killed in the west of the country, shortly before vote counting got under way, according to Pascal Affi N’Guessan, Gbagbo’s campaign manager, Reuters reports.
Two security sources said the killings took place outside three different polling stations where angry Ivorians complained of being blocked from voting.
Ivory Coast has been divided since a 2002-2003 civil war left rebels in charge of the north, and unrest has wreaked havoc on what had been a West African economic success.
The election is meant to heal that divide, and the first round took place in a good-natured atmosphere on October 31.
But that has given way to a heated contest in the run-off between the top two candidates. At least seven other people have been killed in the run-up to the vote.
Election observers held late evening talks with U.N. mission chief Y.J. Choi after reports of irregularities emerged.
“We have some concerns,” the head of the E.U. mission, Cristian Dan Preda, told Reuters by telephone. He said there were reports of “roadblocks, tensions in the polling booths, a lack of materials” which were not reported in the first round.
As counting began, groups of the rivals’ supporters gathered outside many polling stations along the wide boulevards of the lagoon-side city of Abidjan.
Ouattara’s campaign manager Marcel Tanon told journalists party representatives had been prevented from going to some polling stations and chased away from others.
“Since the start of the vote, we have seen systematic blocking,” he said. Roadblocks were set up by pro-Gbagbo youths who checked voting cards and blocked likely opposition voters, he said, adding this might affect “the credibility of the vote”.
Meanwhile, Auguste Gnahoua Zoguehi, chief of staff for Gbagbo’s interior minister, accused rebels still controlling the north of intimidating government supporters and said they would lodge a complaint with the Consitutional Court.
“These incidents are particularly serious as they could have an impact on the result in the areas they took place in.”
An overnight curfew delayed the start of voting. Polling stations in the main city of Abidjan visited by Reuters journalists were less busy than in the first round, when the turnout was well over 80 percent.
The curfew was called by Gbagbo to stem violence but it illustrated heightened tensions and was criticised by Gbagbo’s rivals who feared it would be used to rig the result.
“Now we’re afraid things will get hot,” said lawyer Anderson N’Guessan, as he waited to vote in Abidjan’s steamy humidity.
Gbagbo and Ouattara won 38 and 32 percent in the first round 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 an election.
“I think there is no possibility for me (to lose),” Ouattara said after voting. “We need … to get out of this crisis.”
After he voted in Abidjan’s leafy Cocody suburb, Gbagbo rejected reports that he had agreed to ease security measures: “The curfew remains in place … There is only one person who can announce a curfew or lift it and that’s the president – me.”
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 war that left it in rebel hands, the former rebels ignored the curfew and the polls opened on time.
“The stakes are very high … I’m afraid we can expect some degree of violence,” said Gilles Yabi, an independent political analyst, referring to the risk of clashes.
A successful poll could 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.
Any trouble in the aftermath of the polls is likely to disrupt deliveries of cocoa to the country’s main ports.
Voting will also be closely watched by holders of Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion eurobond, which traded with yield below 10 percent for the first time after the peaceful first round but has crept back up to around 10.4 percent, a sign of greater risk.