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Analysts Predict Doom for Ivory Coast With Disputed Election

Africa: A fair vote is seen as unlikely after the military ruler takes steps to ensure his victory. Key politicians urge a boycott.


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Voters in this West African nation head to the polls today in a presidential election that was initially slated to bring a swift and relatively smooth transition to democracy and civilian rule. But analysts say the chances of a free and fair vote that would restore this country's past reputation as a bastion of peace and stability seem bleak.

Ivorian military leader Gen. Robert Guei, who took control during a December coup, has molded the political playing field to ensure his victory. Most candidates, including those from the country's two largest political parties, were recently excluded from the vote by the Supreme Court, leaving four relatively minor opponents to challenge Guei.

As key politicians called on their supporters to boycott the vote, analysts predicted a triumph for Guei and doom for Ivory Coast. The country was set to face continued political upheaval, economic degeneration, ethnic turbulence and international alienation, they said.

"I really don't see a happy ending in this saga," said Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for West, Central and East Africa at Washington's National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. "I think the chances for free and fair elections are extremely slim, if not nonexistent."

Guei, 59, a French-trained career soldier, had promised to swiftly relinquish power after his ouster of Ivorian President Henri Konan Bedie on Dec. 24. But he subsequently traded his military fatigues for a suit and tie and, lacking his own political power base, rallied several smaller parties around his candidacy.

Today's winner must garner 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff early next month. Guei's foes are counting on a low voter turnout to demonstrate what they say is the election's lack of credibility.

The country's best-known opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara of the Rally of the Republicans party, was disqualified from the presidential race when questions arose over his parents' nationality. A new junta-sponsored constitution requires that presidential candidates be of "Ivorian origin."

Ouattara's participation in the election could have spurred his fellow northerners and Muslims to unite against the decades-old political dominance by southerners.

Candidates from the former Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast, which governed the country for almost 40 years after independence from France in 1960, also were excluded. This left Guei with only one serious contender--Laurent Gbagbo, 55, a history professor, trade unionist and longtime opposition leader, who lost a run for the presidency in the country's first multi-party elections in 1990 and led a boycott of the 1995 poll, which he denounced as undemocratic. Gbagbo is leader of the Ivorian Popular Front.

"It's not a level playing field," said Herman Cohen, a U.S. assistant secretary of State for African affairs from 1989 to 1993 and president of a consulting firm that once worked for the Bedie government. "However, there are some people who feel that in free and fair elections, Gbagbo should get more votes."

Guei's decision to run and the exclusion of major opponents prompted the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the European Union and countries such as the United States and Canada to withdraw election observers and funding.

"Guei has not listened to advice from his peers, other heads of state, or from the OAU," said Fomunyoh, of the National Democratic Institute. "He has not paid any attention to the internal outcry against his candidacy. . . . He has completely ignored advice from international organizations. He has not gone this far to then give [the presidency] to someone else."

The general, who has said he would step aside if he loses, is running as the "people's candidate" who, if elected, will unite all Ivorians.

But critics accuse Guei of stirring ethnic tensions by blaming foreigners--other Africans who make up about 40% of the country's population--for the scarcity of jobs for Ivorians. Ivory Coast once was known for its hospitality to other Africans who settled there and helped contribute to the country's economic development through commercial and agricultural activities. But in the weeks preceding the presidential vote, violence flared against these immigrants, and scores fled the country.

If Guei declares himself the winner, analysts said, he will face a massive challenge in trying to govern. Despite their exclusion from the election, the two main political parties have substantial popular support and could join forces to present a strong opposition in parliament, elections for which are scheduled later this year. International donors who cut assistance to Ivory Coast to protest the coup and Guei's presidential candidacy would not be in a hurry to come back. And foreign investors would likely stay away too.

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