Ivory Coast Presidential Vote Begins

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- The West African nation of Ivory Coast held a long-awaited presidential election Sunday, the first since civil war erupted in 2002 and split the world's leading cocoa producer in half.

Millions of people here are hoping the repeatedly delayed poll will reunite the divided country and restore stability after more than a decade of chaos and tension. But with ex-rebels still armed in the north, powerful militias running free in the west and militants on all sides who don't want to lose, many also fear the political contest could unleash a new era of unrest.

"Ivorians want to have peaceful elections. People are tired," said journalist and political analyst Abdoulaye Sangare. But if any party fails to accept the outcome, "there could be violence. And if there is, nobody can say where it might stop."

Voting booths opened nationwide, including in the former rebel stronghold of Bouake in the north and the main city Abidjan. Some people got in line to vote as early as 4:00 a.m. When the polls opened, voters placed their ballots in clear plastic urns and had their index fingers dipped in indelible purple ink.

Results are expected by Wednesday and vote counting could be highly contentious. Some residents have been stocking up on food and fuel, fearing riots or street clashes could break out.

Alain Mosso, a 48-year-old law professor who voted in Abidjan, said that many hope these elections will bring peace.

"Elections cannot resolve all our problems...But they can turn a new page and restore stability to Ivory Coast," he said.

Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, 65, whose official five-year mandate expired in 2005, is facing 13 challengers. The heavyweights among them are 68-year-old opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who is wildly popular in the pro-rebel north, and 76-year-old ex-president Henri Konan Bedie, who was toppled in 1999 during the country's first coup.

If no candidate wins a simple majority, the top two finishers will face off in a second round Nov. 28.

"We need change," Nguessan Nguessan, a 45-year-old businessman in Abidjan said. "Nothing has changed here in 10 years, it's only gotten worse."

The 1999 coup shattered the former French colony's reputation as a beacon of political stability in the region. But worse was to come. In 2002, fighting erupted for several days in skyscraper-lined Abidjan itself, once known as the "Paris of Africa" for its cosmopolitan nightlife and chic boutiques.

Months of civil war followed, leaving the nation divided between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south. Amid the stalemate, businesses died off and expatriates fled as the nation fell into a state of economic decline. But not everyone lost out: rebels profited handsomely from the diamond and gold trade. And in the south, exports of cocoa -- the raw material for chocolate -- have boomed; Over the past eight years, government crude oil exports have risen six-fold to 60,000 barrels per day.

A breakthrough came in 2007 with a peace deal that saw rebel leader Guillaume Soro appointed prime minister in a unity government. A U.N.-patrolled buffer zone disappeared, and a roadmap for elections was drawn up. But the rebels were never disarmed -- they merely returned to barracks and kept wearing patches identifying them as members of the New Forces rebel movement.

"There's always a risk of violence," said Traore Drissa, a prominent lawyer who runs the Abidjan-based Ivorian Movement for Human Rights. "The rebels ... still have the capacity to fight."

Meanwhile, armed militias numbering in the tens of thousands who filled the security vacuum in western Ivory Coast also remain a threat. Some hold such sway that they have been able to prevent all the top three candidates from holding rallies in the western town of Guiglo in recent weeks, Drissa said. According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, banditry, violence, and rape are widespread in the region, and the rule of law there has disintegrated with no functioning trial courts or prisons.

Major progress has been made, but the most crucial issue -- deciding who would legitimately be allowed to vote in Sunday's election -- has taken years.

Of Ivory Coast's 20 million people, more than a quarter are foreign immigrants who came to work on cocoa and coffee plantations. Differentiating them from native Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries has been profoundly contentious.

Gbagbo's party believes countless foreigners have falsified documents to vote in an opposition- and rebel-fueled bid to skew the poll, while opposition leaders contend the process has merely helped cement legitimate rights to citizenship. Despite perceived imperfections, though, all parties have accepted the list and the U.N. -- which has around 9,000 peacekeepers here -- has deemed it "credible."

Last month, Gbagbo officially validated the final 5.7-million-person voter roll, and only in the weeks since has the government begun handing out millions of new identity cards. An estimated $400 million has been spent identifying voters and issuing state-of-the-art biometric IDs, prompting some observers to call it the most expensive election in the world.

"This is a defining moment for the Ivorian people," United Nations special envoy Young-jin Choi told The Associated Press in an interview at his office in the main city, Abidjan.

The days ahead, he said, "will decide whether they live up to this unique chance."