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Ivory Coast legislative polls open amid tension

UN tanks were out in force in Ivory Coast's commercial capital ahead of legislative elections Sunday. Officials hope the vote will usher in stability and economic growth after last year's presidential elections plunged the nation into violence.


AP - U.N. tanks patrolled Ivory Coast’s commercial capital on the eve of a legislative election, in what residents said was a reminder of the tense mood just before last year’s presidential poll plunged the nation into months of violence.

Officials hope a calm election on Sunday can bring stability and usher in a period of economic growth in this once-flourishing West African nation, which is a leading cocoa producer.

But recent developments related to last year’s presidential poll hover over the proceedings. A boycott and violence during the campaign have also cast doubt over a peaceful outcome.

Last week, former strongman Laurent Gbagbo was spirited to The Hague to face accusations that his forces committed murder and rape after he rejected his loss in the presidential election. Many of his remaining supporters called the move unjust. His party, now the opposition, has vowed to boycott the election.

Gbagbo’s party claims the electoral commission is loyal to the new ruling party and will manipulate the results as some 950 candidates vie for 255 spots. They also claim that the army under President Alassane Ouattara’s command is leading a campaign of intimidation against their supporters.

The boycott is sure to hand victory to candidates loyal to Ouattara, who took power in April with the help of French and U.N. forces.

For months the United Nations peacekeeping mission has been carrying out educational campaigns over the vote. Ouattara has asked his countrymen to forgive and reconcile. But no one is taking any chances. The U.N. deployed 7,000 troops to provide security, and 25,000 Ivorian police and military will also guard the poll.

Three people were killed in a rocket-launcher attack on Wednesday, Minister of Defense Paul Koffi Koffi said. The electoral commission has denounced what it described as ‘more or less abnormal situations’ like violence, hate speech, and xenophobia in the electoral campaign.

But the bigger issue, Gbagbo loyalists say, is the growing sense of “victor’s justice” over Gbagbo’s treatment. Prosecutors at the war crimes court say about 3,000 people died in violence by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede. Rights groups and the U.N. have said crimes were committed by both sides, but no member of Ouattara’s side has been charged.

The boycott is also seen as politically strategic. For months the party has said it would only participate if the government freed Gbagbo and his allies. After their plea was denied, they announced Ouattara’s government was not willing to make concessions.

The parliamentary elections are ‘not inclusive,’ said Sylvain Miaka Ouretto, who leads Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party. He called the elections a ‘masquerade organized by the powers in place.’

Gbagbo’s transfer to the ICC has also given the party a justification to turn its back on the reconciliation process, which was launched formally in September.

By letting Gbagbo face trial at the International Criminal Court, “President Ouattara has definitively ruined all chance for reconciliation,” Ouretto said. If the government had “suspended all judicial proceedings with the ICC, (it) would have been a strong signal in bringing about national reconciliation,” he said.

The majority of Gbagbo’s entourage is in prison or under house arrest, including the former first lady and his ministers. Tens of thousands of his supporters are still in refugee camps in neighboring Ghana and Liberia where they fled after Ouattara’s forces seized this commercial capital.

Gbagbo’s party has called on all voters to boycott the poll, and some are listening. “What’s the point in voting if France can come in and change the results?” asked Serophin Kokri, a waiter in Abidjan.

While Ouattara was recognized internationally as the winner of last year’s election, some still think Gbagbo won. Propaganda that played nightly on Gbagbo-controlled state television before his arrest argued that France, the country’s former colonizer, was attempting to manipulate the electoral process in order to put the candidate of their choosing in office.

But other Ivorians say they want the country to move on. “People who aren’t going to vote want the country to move backwards. I’m going to vote,” says Kone Mamadou, 41, a driver in Abidjan. “It hasn’t been long since the crisis, but look at how life has returned to normal.”

In the opposition headquarters, though, there is a sign that a large group isn’t ready to let go. New campaign posters have been recently posted on the walls. They say, simply: ‘Vote Laurent Gbagbo.’

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