Tense Ivory Coast vote reveals a nation divided

Voters in the conflict-torn West African nation of Ivory Coast are choosing a new president today amid concerns of violence after political clashes caused at least six deaths in recent days.

Luc Gnago/Reuters
A woman casts her vote in the presidential election run-off at a polling station in the rebels' stronghold of Bouake, Sunday. Polls opened in Ivory Coast on Sunday for the presidential election run-off with fears of violence marring hopes that the vote will draw a line under a decade of political crisis and economic stagnation.

People across the Ivory Coast headed to the polls Sunday for the first time in more than a decade, hoping to put a definitive end to a civil war and political crisis that has stoked ethnic tensions and left the world's top cocoa producing nation divided in two.

While the first round of voting on Oct. 31 was certified as free and fair by international observers, the campaigns have turned nasty in recent days, with clashes between partisans causing at least six deaths so far. The United Nations has dispatched an extra 500 troops to the country to reinforce the almost 10,000 already there, and local security forces have stepped up their presence as well.

Sunday's run-off vote pits sitting president Laurent Gbagbo against his long-standing rival Alassane Ouattara in a contest that is in many ways a democratic proxy for the all-but-resolved civil war.

Two rivals face off

Mr. Gbagbo paints himself as a patriotic president who defended his country from attack by rebels from the mainly Muslim north of the country, held it together during a drawn-out political stalemate and was forced to cling to power for five years after his mandate expired in order to pull the country back from the brink of collapse.

Facing him is a man whose personal fortunes reflect the discrimination that pushed northerners to pick up weapons and demand equal rights. While Mr. Ouattara denies any relationship with the rebellion, he is widely considered the candidate of the north and received almost 90 percent in some districts there in the first round of voting.

Gaspar Kouadio is a sociology professor from Abidjan. He's voting for Gbagbo because he sees in him a leader who's got the courage to do what is necessary to keep the country together.

“Gbagbo was in Rome when the rebellion broke out, but he came home to face them head-on,” he said. “That's important for a leader.”

Souleymane Keita, a bicycle repairman in the main marketplace in the Ivorian capital of Yamoussoukro, sees things quite differently. He was born in the center of the country, but because he has a northern name, spent his life being hassled as a foreigner.

“I still won't wear my Muslim cap when I drive,” he said. “It just invites trouble.”

Religious and xenophobic tension

Xenophobic tension lies at the heart the civil war.

Shortly after independence in 1960, Ivory Coast encouraged immigration from neighboring countries to provide labor in the cocoa fields that fueled rapid development and turned the country into the envy of the region, with glittering glass skyscrapers, hydroelectric dams, and multilane highways.

Because being born in Ivory Coast doesn't grant citizenship, foreigners now number in the millions and many of them have been living in the country for generations. Their presence became a problem when the bottom fell out of cocoa prices in the 1980s.

As unemployment soared, then-president Henri Konan Bédié, who unsuccessfully ran in this election, institutionalized the concept of Ivoirité – or Ivorianness – as a way to bolster nationalism and undermine support for Ouattara, his political rival and a northerner wildly popular among the immigrant population.

While Ouattara was forced to flee the country in 2002, the rebellion fought to give a voice to the northerners and peace accords signed in 2007 secured them a strong voice in the future of the country. Ouattara's candidacy was a pre-condition for peace, written into the first ceasefire in 2003.

Who is Ivorian?

Drawing up a definitive list of Ivorian citizens was the first task the warring parties had to accomplish together, both knowing that a low standard would bolster the ranks of Ouattara supporters and a high bar would exclude as many of them as possible. But trying to figure out the difference between an Ivorian of Malian origin and a Malian who was born and raised in Ivory Coast often comes down to tattered photocopies of colonial-era identity papers that go back generations.

Working out the list delayed the election six times before the first round was finally held in October.

Unsurprisingly, the protagonists from each side of the civil war made it through to the run-off, setting the stage for an election that will either justify the rebellion by putting its champion in the presidential palace, or vindicate everything an embattled president did to defend his country.

Both sides remain convinced of their victory.

“Gbagbo accomplished in wartime than his predecessors did in peace,” says Prof. Kouadio.

But Mr. Keita, the bicycle repairman hopes that a Ouattara victory will show everyone that northerners and southerners can live peacefully side by side. “I'm sure of it,” he said. “He's a real Ivorian, just like me.”

Results are expected three days after the polls close.

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