Ivory Coast heads for runoff vote later this month

Associated Press
Residents  watch election results in  Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday Nov. 3, 2010. Results released Wednesday saw President Laurent Gbagbo and opposition leader Alassane Ouattara will face ewach other in a runoff in three weeks in this tense West African nation that remains divided after a civil war.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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President Laurent Gbagbo will face Ivory Coast's main opposition leader in what is likely to be a tense runoff later this month that could restore stability to the world's biggest cocoa producer after a decade of unrest.

But some fear the Nov. 28 vote pitting Gbagbo against Alassane Ouattara, who is wildly popular in the formerly rebel-held, could polarize the already divided West African nation and spur more violence.

Early Thursday, the electoral commission released final results from Sunday's ballot that showed Gbagbo in first place with just over 38 percent of the vote, compared to about 32 for Ouattara — both well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round.

The party of ex-president Henri Konan Bedie, however, called for a recount, accusing the electoral commission of publishing false results in a "clear desire" to rig the poll. Bedie, who was toppled in 1999 during the nation's first coup, trailed in third place with 25 percent of the vote, according to the results.

International observers have lauded Ivory Coast for carrying out the vote peacefully and said they had detected no fraud. The ballot was the first here since civil war split the world's biggest cocoa producer in two, leaving rebels in control of the north.

The country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, but deep tensions remain. Fears over possible unrest during the vote count kept many people home and left shops in the skyscraper-lined commercial capital, Abidjan, closed this week.

Those businesses reopened Thursday and traffic once again clogged streets as resident expressed relief the electoral process had gone peacefully so far.

The preliminary results must be certified by the country's constitutional council, which will deal with any challenges before the count becomes official. The U.N. special envoy to Ivory Coast Young-jin Choi, said he had been assured by leaders of Bedie's party that they would only use "democratic means" to oppose the vote.

Bedie and Ouattara have pledged to support one another in the event of a second round, and together they could mount a formidable challenge to Gbagbo. But it's unclear how many of Bedie's supporters would actually vote for Ouattara, especially in light of Bedie's call for a recount.

Once a beacon of stability in a region better known for coups and war, Ivory Coast has been struggling to hold the election for years.

Gbagbo's five-year mandate officially expired in 2005, but he extended his stay in office, arguing elections were impossible because armed rebels still controlled the northern half of the country.

The 2007 peace deal broke years of political stalemate, leading to the dismantlement of a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone. But the vote was delayed again repeatedly because of disputes over voter rolls.

More than a quarter of the country's 20 million people are foreign immigrants who came to work on cocoa and coffee plantations in the south. Differentiating them from native Ivorians with roots and names common in neighboring countries like Burkina Faso and Mali has taken years.

About 4.8 million out of 5.7 million registered voters, according to the electoral commission, meaning turnout was high — about 85 percent.

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Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.

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