Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara seeks reelection in a presidential vote Saturday marked by an opposition boycott and clashes over his bid to secure a contested third term.
At least 30 people have been killed in pre-election violence, evoking memories of a 2010-2011 crisis that turned Abidjan into a battleground and left 3,000 dead.
A former IMF official in power since 2010, Ouattara is facing off with veteran opposition leader Henri Konan Bedie in a feud among the country’s ageing leaders that has defined Ivorian politics for decades.
Ouattara’s decision to run sparked tensions with Bedie and another opposition candidate, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who called for a boycott of the vote on the grounds a third mandate was unconstitutional.
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.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT). It was unclear when results will be released. Electoral law allows for five days for results to be made official.
“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.”
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 forced 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 and opposition leaders accuse the electoral commission and the constitutional court of favouring the government, making a fair and transparent vote impossible.
A group had blocked the main route between Abidjan and the north of the country early on Saturday, 350 kilometres (220 miles) north of Abidjan.
More than 35,000 police and security force officials have been mobilised to secure the election.
“All arrangements have been made to allow the population to vote in peace,” Security Minister Diomande Vagondo said.
– Appeal for calm -The UN has urged calm but the opposition called on supporters to carry out a campaign of civil disobedience to stop 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 Abidjan Strategies institute.
Weeks before the election saw sporadic clashes in the south of the country, mainly between local ethnic groups close to the opposition and Diaolu communities from the north who are seen as loyal to the president.
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 Diaolu youth and opposition-aligned Baoule communities, said local residents.
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 Laurent 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.