Ivory Coast voters stay away from 'rigged' elections

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The Independent Online

The two main contenders for the presidency of Ivory Coast both said yesterday that they had won Sunday's election, although the low turn-out for the junta-orchestrated ballot undermined the victory claims.

The two main contenders for the presidency of Ivory Coast both said yesterday that they had won Sunday's election, although the low turn-out for the junta-orchestrated ballot undermined the victory claims.

General Robert Guei, who has been in power since a Christmas coup last year, and Laurent Gbagbo, a veteran opposition politician, claimed success as the political crisis deepened. But because only 30 per cent of the country's 5.5 million registered voters had cast ballots, neither candidate looked likely to achieve the legitimacy of a decisive victory.

The stability of Ivory Coast - a former French colony - is crucial to West Africa. As the world's leading cocoa producer, it is the source of about 40 per cent of the region's foreign earnings. Its fortunes are central to the economies of 15 countries who share the CFA Franc as their currency.

General Guei had pledged to step down if he was decisively defeated by one of his four rival candidates - selected two weeks ago by the country's supreme court from a total of 19 - but with such a low turn-out, the election is likely to go to a second round. Even then, the poll will lack legitimacy because the two parties that generally reap 75 per cent of the vote were banned. Both subsequently urged their supporters to boycott the ballot.

The European Union's 30 observers reported minor irregularities in the technicalities of voting, saying they were problems of "disorder not malice". But the international community - including the UN, the Organisation of African Unity, the EU and the US - has, in effect, already condemned the elections by withholding funding for voting materials.

The run-up to the elections has been marked by ethnic divisions and the mass departure to Burkina Faso of thousands of terrified migrant workers, fearing attack since the main opposition leader and former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, was disqualified by the supreme court.

In his campaign, Gen Guei has drawn on a long tradition of xenophobic gerrymandering to accuse Mr Ouattara, who has many supporters in the Muslim north, of being non-Ivorian, a charge he vehemently denies. Journalists at polling stations in Korhogo, the main city in the north and Mr Ouattara's stronghold, said voters were virtually absent there.

Mr Gbagbo, a former history professor and left-leaning politician, was the only heavyweight allowed to run against the junta leader. Despite an impressive record of condemning the leadership dynasty of the late Félix Houphoüet-Boigny, Mr Gbagbo lost some credibility by joining Gen Guei's "transition government" after last year's coup.

During campaigning, Mr Gbagbo offered Gen Guei the choice of "defeat or popular uprising" but the tough talk, if Sunday's turn-out is a gauge, has not convinced Ivorians that he is a new broom.

Gen Guei's popularity has gone into freefall since December when his coup was welcomed for ousted President Henri Konan Bédie, the heir of the corrupt Houphoüet-Boigny dynasty.

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