Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara urged opponents to give up a campaign of civil disobedience during Saturday’s election when he is seeking a contested third term that critics reject as unconstitutional.
At least 30 people have been killed in pre-election clashes since August, stoking fears of a return to the violence that left 3,000 dead in a crisis a decade ago when then president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.
A former IMF economist in power since 2010, Ouattara is facing off with veteran opposition leader Henri Konan Bedie in a bitter rivalry that has marked the West African country’s politics for decades.
Ouattara’s decision to run again angered opposition leaders who called for a boycott and civil disobedience over a third mandate they branded an “electoral coup”.
“I appeal to those who launched this slogan for civil disobedience which has led to deaths: Stop. Ivory Coast needs peace,” Ouattara said after he voted in Abidjan.
“I urge young people not to let themselves be manipulated.”
Abidjan was calm, but protesters blocked the main route to the north, near the central town of Djebonoua, 350 kilometres (220 miles) from the economic capital, local residents said.
Groups of youths also set up makeshift barricades in some neighbourhoods in and around Daoukro, stronghold of opposition leader Bedie, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
“We got up very early to put up barricades to stop the election and respect the boycott,” said one youth Jean, standing at a blockade of tree branches.
Electoral material had still not arrived in Daoukro.
In Bouadikro and Bongouanou, a stronghold of another opposition leader, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, north of Abidjan, polling stations had not opened, witnesses said.
Roadblocks were erected between the towns, and young protesters were warning “No vote here”, witnesses said.
More than 35,000 police and security force officials have been mobilised to secure the election.
“The process has been tense,” said Patrick Allou, 32, waiting to vote in Abidjan’s Plateau district. “Everyone has their opinion but you should express it democratically. No one needs to die in an election.”
Polls close at 1800 GMT, though it is not clear when the results will be released. Electoral authorities by law have up to five days to announce the results.
– Growth, stability –
The ballot in French-speaking West Africa’s economic powerhouse is a crunch test in a region where Nigeria faces widespread social protests, Mali is emerging from a coup and jihadist violence wracks the Sahel.
Ouattara, 78, was supposed to step aside after his second term to make way for a younger generation, but the sudden death of his chosen successor led to a change in plan.
The Ivorian leader says a constitutional court ruling approved his third term, allowing him to bypass two-term presidential limits after a 2016 legal reform.
His supporters expect a strong win, touting his record in bringing infrastructure projects, economic growth and stability to the world’s top cocoa producer after a decade of instability.
But Bedie, 86, and opposition leaders accuse the electoral commission and the constitutional court of favouring the government, making a fair and transparent vote impossible.
The constitutional court rejected 40 other candidacies, including those of Gbagbo, 75, and former rebel leader turned prime minister Guillaume Soro.
Both men are outside the country, but retain loyal followings in their local Ivorian strongholds.
– Appeal for calm –
While the UN has called for calm, the opposition urged supporters to carry out an “active” boycott and a campaign to block the vote, stoking fears of violence in opposition strongholds.
“The question is what will the opposition do after November 1?” said Sylvain N’Guessan, director and political analyst at the Abidjan Strategies institute.
The weeks before the election saw sporadic clashes in the south of the country, mainly between local ethnic groups close to the opposition and Dioula communities seen as loyal to the president, himself a Muslim from the north.
The country’s political feuds are often closely tied up with its leaders’ ethnic identities and regional loyalties.
Police fired tear gas on Friday in the political capital Yamoussoukro to break up fighting between Dioula youth and opposition-aligned Baoule communities.
A decade ago, Ivory Coast was emerging from a civil war and the country was split in two, the north held by rebels and the south by forces of then president Gbagbo.
Ouattara won a long-postponed election in 2010 although Gbagbo refused to accept defeat. After battles in Abidjan, French forces intervened to help Ouattara loyalists oust the former president.
© Agence France-Presse