ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Poll workers in Ivory Coast began counting ballots on Sunday after a day of peaceful voting in a presidential election seen as crucial to turning the page on a decade-long political crisis and a civil war in 2011.
President Alassane Ouattara, whose leadership has helped the West African nation re-emerge as a rising economic star on the continent, is facing a divided opposition and is heavily favored to win re-election.
However, there were concerns that a boycott by part of the opposition coupled with voter apathy could result in low turnout.
As a commodities crash has caused other African economies to crumble, investors have flooded into the world’s top cocoa grower, drawn by growth around 9 percent over the past three years. They are likely to be reassured by the vote, which observers said was overwhelmingly free of violence.
“For the moment we are quite satisfied that everything is going ahead without any major incidents,” said Mariam Dao Gabela, chairperson of the Peace-CI civil society elections observer project.
While the risk of poll violence was considered low, tens of thousands of soldiers, police and gendarmes were deployed across the country to secure the election, in which voters faced a choice of seven candidates for the presidency.
More than 6 million Ivorians were registered to vote at some 20,000 polling stations nationwide.
“We must ensure that we emerge from this election with peace and serenity and unite even more in order to take on the further challenges awaiting the nation,” Ouattara said after voting in the Cocody district of the commercial capital Abidjan.
Voting, which was officially set to begin at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT), was delayed up to several hours in many areas by the late arrival of materials, including ballots and ballot boxes.
Nearly a third of computer tablets, part of new technology introduced to verify voters’ identities, also failed at some point before noon, according to the POECI civil society observer platform.
As a result of the problems, the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) prolonged voting by two hours to 7 p.m. in voting centers affected by the delays.
Election workers emptied ballot boxes and began counting the votes immediately after the polls closed.
In the classroom of a school in Abidjan’s Deux Plateaux neighborhood, election officials held up ballots for candidates’ observers to scrutinize before tabulating the votes on a chalkboard.
Voter turnout will be critical to legitimizing Ouattara’s mandate if he wins as expected.
Roughly 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2010. And while Ouattara said he was confident of a high level of participation, most voters and observers said the crowds were smaller on Sunday.
Leaders of a break-away faction of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), the party of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo, have called for a boycott of the election.
Gbagbo’s refusal to recognize Ouattara’s 2010 poll victory sparked the civil war, which killed around 3,000 people. Gbagbo is now in The Hague awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity.
The FPI hardliners have been joined by three candidates, including former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, who pulled out of the vote, saying the process was stacked in Ouattara’s favor.
Polling stations in pro-Gbagbo villages in the former president’s home region around the southwestern cocoa hub of Gagnoa were devoid of voters.
“My president is in prison,” said Yves Titiro, a cocoa farmer in the village of Zebizekou, near Gagnoa. “In the north there will be an election, but it has nothing to do with us here.”
The boycott is a challenge to Ouattara’s efforts to mobilize voters. But it is also a test for his main opponent, FPI president Pascal Affi N‘Guessan, who is leading his party’s moderates in their first poll participation since 2010.
N‘Guessan has criticized Ouattara for failing to foster post-war reconciliation and has chastised the FPI’s own hardliners for endangering the party’s future with their call for a boycott.
“I voted for the best one, and I can tell you it was Affi,” said Elie Vakou, a voter in the mainly pro-Gbagbo Sicogie neighborhood of Abidjan’s Yopougon district. “If people vote for Affi, he can win and then free Gbagbo.”
Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Ros Russell