Facing divided opposition, Ivory Coast president is heavy favorite in re-election bid

Ivory Coast's president is widely expected to win a second term as the West African nation votes Sunday, five years after a disputed poll that sparked the worst violence the country has experienced since independence.

President Alassane Ouattara defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo in the 2010 contest, though Gbagbo's refusal to leave office led to months of fighting that killed more than 3,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. With Gbagbo now awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court and the opposition divided, Ouattara is hoping for a first-round win on the strength of an impressive economic rebound and infrastructure and security improvements.

Two weeks ago, Ouattara launched his campaign in Yamoussoukro, the hometown of the country's founding president whose death in 1993 ushered in years of political instability. The move was a clear attempt to present himself as the "heir" to ex-President Felix Houphouet-Boigny — a much-revered figure associated with prosperity and peace, said political analyst Rodrigue Kone.

"The message is that he has succeeded in putting Ivory Coast back on the road of development, of achieving successes that we have not seen" in more than two decades, Kone said.

However, the candidate for Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front political party, Pascal Affi N'Guessan, has said Ivory Coast is in a "forced marriage" with a president who has failed to alleviate poverty or ensure security, leading to problems such as child thieves roaming working-class neighborhoods of the largest city, Abidjan.

N'Guessan's decision to participate in the vote led to a split with a large faction of Gbagbo's party who say the election will be rigged and that N'Guessan is a traitor.

The third-place candidate in 2010, former President Henri Konan Bedie, has thrown his support behind Ouattara, greatly strengthening the incumbent's position. Though some members of Bedie's party have split off to launch independent campaigns, analysts say they do not appear to have significant support.

The field started with 10 candidates but three have withdrawn from the process expressing doubt about the vote's fairness. The latest, former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, announced Friday that he would not participate in an "unjust" election.

If re-elected, Ouattara has vowed to focus on the problems of youth unemployment and reconciliation.

Last week on state television Ouattara acknowledged that the post-conflict years have been "difficult" while arguing that Ivory Coast — once the undisputed hub of French-speaking West Africa — has made great strides under his rule.

"The calamitous management of 10 years of my predecessor plus the postelection crisis led me to find a country in total collapse," he said.

More than 6 million people are registered to vote, though the apparent lack of suspense over the outcome could depress turnout.

Sculptor Ibrahima Kone praised Ouattara as "a builder" he was happy to support.

"The whole country is under construction — roads, bridges, universities," Kone said. "Ouattara had to come for Ivory Coast to know all this again."


Associated Press writer Isidore Kouadio contributed to this report from Abidjan.