x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Ivory Coast president to contest poll results

Opposition claims president has blocked the announcement of first batch of presidential election results.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast // Opposition leaders in Ivory Coast accused President Laurent Gbagbo of trying to steal the country's presidential election, as angry ruling party loyalists prevented the commission's spokesman from announcing the first major batch of results.

The chaotic scene Tuesday night at the commission's headquarters and the failure to release any significant tally two days after polls closed has increased tension and uncertainty in the world's leading cocoa producer, which is struggling to unite after civil war eight years ago split the country in two.

Across Abidjan on Tuesday afternoon, stores closed early and people went home, fearing violence after the proclamation of results was delayed for a third time.

Late Tuesday, electoral commission spokesman Bamba Yacouba prepared to read the first large tranche of results as media gathered at the commission's headquarters. But Damana Picasse, a commission member from Gbagbo's party, yanked papers from Yacouba's hands and ripped them up, yelling: "We did not sign off on these results!"

Yacouba said afterward that the tallies - from three of the nation's 18 regions - had been approved by the commission. He gave no results and security forces later ordered journalists to leave.

Gbagbo's party vowed earlier it would contest some results from three regions of the country's rebel-held north where opposition supporters allegedly tried to steal ballot boxes and take Gbagbo supporters hostage.

Earlier, Mabri Toikeusse, spokesman for opposition leader Alassane Ouattara's coalition, accused Gbagbo loyalists of trying to cheat. Gbagbo "is operating with a rationale of obstructing the electoral commission and confiscating power," Toikeusse said.

The ballot, delayed for years, was supposed to be a key step toward reuniting the West African country eight years after a civil war divided it in two. But it has revealed the fact that profound divisions still exist.

Also Tuesday, the European Union's observer mission said the vote was for the most part free and fair. The mission noted no major problems in 95 percent of the polling stations visited.

"The organization of the election was even better than it was in the first round," said mission head Cristian Preda, noting that violence and intimidation had occurred in a small number of polling stations.

Gbagbo campaign chief Pascal Affi N'Guessan said he had discussed the situation with United Nations mission chief Young-Jin Choi and will request that results from the Savanes, Denguele and Worodougou regions be invalidated "because they didn't respect the norms of transparency."

Gbagbo's opponent Ouattara and the New Forces rebels, which still control the northern half of the country where he has overwhelming support, are "wholly responsible for all the violence that occurred before, during and after the election," said Ferdinand Kouassi, Gbagbo's campaign chief in the north.

Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, the former head of the New Forces, responded by saying that the government's reporting of violence on national TV was "partisan, hasty and incomplete." His spokeswoman, Affoussy Bamba, said there had been no deaths in rebel-held territory, nor any attacks or tampering with ballot boxes.

Another group, which called itself the Coordination of African Electoral Experts, read a report on state television on Tuesday, saying that irregularities in the north were so severe that they invalidate the entire election. The group is not internationally recognized and it's not known where the group is based or who belongs to it.

There were scattered reports of violence over the weekend and on voting day, though no violence was reported Monday or by early Tuesday.

Choi, the U.N. representative, said Monday that three people were killed during balloting Sunday as multiple clashes erupted between partisans in the west of the country. Despite these incidents, he said the vote went well overall.

Most of the weekend clashes between political supporters occurred in small villages where there is no police or military presence and residents set up roadblocks to keep outsiders away. About 1,000 people from several villages fled the violence and sought refuge at the U.N. compound in Sinfra on Sunday, U.N. mission spokesman Hamadoun Toure said. He said the villagers refused to leave because they feared for their lives. Most of them had returned home by Monday afternoon, he said.

Voters chose between Gbagbo, who has been in power since violent street protests swept him into power during the last election in 2000, and Ouattara, the man Gbagbo accuses of being behind the rebellion that sought to topple him in 2002.

Gbagbo received 38 percent in a first round of voting in October, and Ouattara came second with about 32 per cent. Since then, third-place finisher Henri Konan Bedie, who won 25 per cent, has thrown his support behind Ouattara.