Ivoirians are set to vote in a presidential run-off election on 28 November, hoping for a peaceful outcome to an often violent contest and an end to a decade of instability.
In the country’s first live televised debate on 25 November, the two candidates – incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara – surprised many with a polite tone that was in stark contrast to the nastiness in recent campaigning. The two pledged to accept the election outcome.
“To be honest, we were all confused by how civilised the debate was after all the bitterness this last week,” student Cissé Sindou, 28, told IRIN from the rebel stronghold of Bouaké. “But it’s a good sign; it shows we can debate instead of burn things.”
But the trading of old accusations between the two candidates was a reminder of the strong tensions that remain, with both camps offering little in the way of compromise before the vote. Rival supporters have clashed using clubs and machetes in the commercial capital Abidjan and in other parts of the country. At least one person has been killed and the Interior Ministry has confirmed at least nine arrests.
Gbagbo’s supporters have continued to denounce Ouattara as a “foreigner”, while Ggagbo has accused his opponent of fomenting rebellion. “Why should we hand the country to a putschiste?” Gbagbo said during a rally in the Abidjan district of Adjamé, referring to allegations of Ouattara’s direct involvement in the 2002 uprising that that left the northern half of the country in rebel hands.
Ouattara said at a political rally: “It’s Laurent Gbagbo who is dividing Côte d’Ivoire. It’s Laurent Gbagbo who dragged the country to war.”
The government has deployed an additional 2,000 soldiers throughout the country. “To all those lurking in the shadows plotting against peace in this country, the Ivoirian army will be merciless,” army Chief of Staff General Philippe Mangou told reporters.
An Abidjan resident said she felt comforted by the extra security forces. “Where I live in [the neighbourhood of] Abobo, a street divides those who support the president from those who support the opposition,” vendor Aha Dagong, 28, told IRIN.
“You can’t cross to one side if people know you support the other. The police will help, because things will boil over.”
“If the police are able to keep control, it will be a huge step for national reconciliation,” Patrick N’Gouan, president of the Convention de la Société Civile Ivoirienne (CSCI), told IRIN.
|If the police are able to keep control, it will be a huge step for national reconciliation|
Some soldiers will also be concentrated in the volatile southwestern and western regions, where people have circulated leaflets inciting violence against the Baoulé and Dioula communities, both seen as anti-Gbagbo.
N’Gouan said he is hearing of similar intimidation in the north, which is largely seen as pro-Ouattara. “We are receiving the same reports of threats and ‘moral pressure’ in the north against Gbagbo supporters.”
A Ouattara supporter in the northern city of Korhogo told IRIN the situation there was calm. “It’s unthinkable Ouattara will lose,” he said. “So our only worry here is that Gbagbo will refuse to leave, or will use fraud.”
The head of the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), Young-jin Choi, told IRIN checks and balances in place made it “difficult to imagine” widespread fraud.
The recent decision to release results progressively the evening of the vote “safeguard the results and kill speculation, rumours and doubts,” Choi added.
International observers said another vital improvement was the decision for all ballot boxes in Abidjan and Bouaké to be secured and transported by the UN. However, the EU observer mission has warned of the need for more cooperation from the electoral authorities. “Several teams from the mission were refused freedom of observation in the activities leading up to the second round,” mission head Cristian Preda told reporters.
Both France and the European Union had expressed concern about the inflammatory nature of the campaigning, appealing to both sides to adopt a more peaceful tone. The French foreign ministry welcomed the conduct of both parties during the debate, noting the “democratic maturity” on display.
Still, armed youths from both parties refusing to accept the results is the “big headache,” a security expert told IRIN. Another security observer said youths might well ignore a curfew to go into effect at 10 pm on voting day, confirmed by Gbagbo during the televised debate and in subsequent interviews, but apparently rejected by Ouattara.