Ivory Coast president set for victory after contested poll

Abidjan (AFP) –


Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara appeared set for victory on Monday after a weekend election marred by clashes and an opposition boycott aimed at derailing his drive for a third term.

Violence erupted in August, sending a wave of alarm through West Africa, when Ouattara said he would run again, to the fury of the opposition who called it a constitutional breach.

Pre-election clashes killed at least 30 and the boycott stoked fears of a repeat of the 2010-2011 crisis when 3,000 people died after then president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by Ouattara.

By midday Monday, the Electoral Commission had released preliminary results from around a quarter of the country's 108 regions showing Ouattara with a commanding lead, as much as 90 percent in parts of his stronghold in the north.

Full results are expected later on Monday.

Ouattara's lead was expected, as opposition leaders Henri Konan Bedie and Pascal Affi N'Guessan, among only four candidates allowed to take part, had called for a boycott of vote.

They have already rejected the ballot as a failure and called for a "civilian transition" from Ouattara's government.

"This marks the end of the mandate," N'Guessan said on Sunday in a short statement for the opposition. "We call on the Ivorian people to mobilise."

That brought a warning from the ruling RHDP party against any attempts to destabilise the country.

"The RHDP calls for authorities to be firm. No one is above the law," RHDP party director Adama Bictogo told reporters.

Abidjan, the country's economic capital, was calm on Monday.

But tensions were still high in Daoukro, an opposition stronghold 235 kilometres (146 miles) north of Abidjan, where protesters had set up barricades.

"We're here on alert, waiting for the results," said General Aime, a local opposition activist.

A local ruling party official said gendarmerie were negotiating to avoid clashes between rival communities who back different political factions.

The tension in francophone West Africa's top economy is the latest test for a region where Guinea is mired in a post-election dispute, Nigeria emerging from widespread unrest and Mali from a coup.

The anger sparked by Ouattara's bid for a third term has revived memories of past Ivorian feuds with roots even before a 2002 civil war split the country in two, north and south.

Ouattara's bitter rivalry with Bedie goes back decades.

"The big post-election challenge for the party in power is going to be creating a dialogue with the opposition," said political analyst Rodrigue Kone.

"If not, then these tensions are just going to keep happening."

- Election unrest -

Pockets of unrest, some vandalised voting material and closed polling stations were reported mostly in opposition strongholds during Saturday's election.

But rival factions gave conflicting accounts of the extent of the boycott.

Electoral authorities said only 30 to 40 polling stations out of more than 22,000 nationwide were vandalised, and Ouattara dismissed the impact on voting as isolated.

At least five people died in clashes on Saturday in central Tiebissou and Oume and in Tehiri village, security and medical sources said, though a local mayor of Tiebissou said a total of four were killed just in his town.

Protests degenerated into clashes between ethnic communities who back rival political factions in Tiebissou, Oume, Yopougon, a poor Abidjan district, and in the western town of Gboguhe, according to witnesses.

The country's political feuds are often linked with ethnic identities, regional loyalties and local fiefdoms of leaders.

- Ouattara U-turn -

Ouattara, 78, had said after his second term he planned to make way for a new generation, but the sudden death of his chosen successor prompted him to seek a third term.

The Ivorian leader says a constitutional court ruling approved his third term, allowing him to reset the country's two-term presidential limit thanks to a 2016 reform.

Bedie, 86, and other opposition leaders have also accused the electoral commission and the constitutional court of favouring the government, making a fair vote impossible.

When Ivory Coast emerged from the civil war after 2002, the country was split in two, the north held by rebels and the south by forces of then president Gbagbo.

Ouattara won a long-postponed election in 2010 although Gbagbo refused to accept defeat. French forces eventually intervened to help Ouattara loyalists oust the former president.