ABIDJAN: Polling stations opened nearly an hour late on Sunday in a long-overdue presidential election in Ivory Coast that is set to reunite the country eight years after a civil war divided it in two.
Voters formed long lines outside of the polling stations in the main city of Abidjan after a nightly curfew went into effect on the eve of the election, keeping many electoral officers from arriving on time.
At the Sainte Jeanne voting station in Abobo, an impoverished neighborhood in Abidjan, a line of impatient voters surged forward and broke down the doors that were still closed an hour after the 7 a.m. official opening time.
The runoff of the country’s first election in a decade will see millions of voters choose between president Laurent Gbagbo and the man he accuses of being behind the rebellion that sought to topple him, Alassane Ouattara.
"I’m here to get rid of a rebellion that’s gone on too long already," said student Vaffiriki Diomande at a polling station in the chic neighborhood of Cocody. "Tonight, when the results are in, it will be all over."
While many expect the voting to take place peacefully, recent violence, in which at least six people have died, has stoked fears that the situation could degenerate if the results aren’t accepted.
Gbagbo received 38 percent in a first round of voting in October, while Ouattara came second with 32 percent. Since then, third-place finisher Henri Konan Bedie has embraced his role as kingmaker, throwing his 25 percent support behind Ouattara.
The first round went well because everyone could vote for their candidate of choice, said sociologist Fahiraman Kone. In the runoff, ethnic tensions are now coming to the fore because everyone has to pick sides, he said.
The pre-election violence took on ethnic overtones, as Gbagbo supporters from the Bete ethnic group have been targeted by Baoule voters who supported Bedie in the first round, but transferred their allegiance to Ouattara.
Security forces have been reinforced across the country, though they kept a low profile during the vote, keeping watch at major intersections and setting up checkpoints along major roads. Officials warned that they would act harshly against agitators.
Gbagbo imposed a nationwide nightly curfew on the eve of the vote in an attempt to head off violent protests, but the opposition rejected it claiming it opens the door to electoral fraud.
Despite calls to lift the curfew from the electoral commission, and efforts to find a solution by crisis mediator Blaise Compaore, the curfew went into force the night before the election.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Blackwell and Schalk Van Zuydam.