Voting began in Ivory Coast on Sunday in an election likely to give President Alassane Ouattara a second term, a crucial event after a decade-long political crisis that ended in a 2011 civil war.
Ouattara, whose leadership has helped the West African nation re-emerge as a rising economic star on the continent, faces a divided opposition, although a partial boycott and voter apathy could result in low turnout. A peaceful election would reassure the investors flooding into the country, the world's top cocoa grower. They are being drawn by growth around 9 percent over the past three years, as a commodities crash causes other African economies to crumble.
More than 6 million Ivorians are registered to vote at some 20,000 polling stations. The elections commission has introduced new technology, including computer tablets, to verify their identities. The process, officially set to begin at 7am local time, was delayed in many areas by the late arrival of materials, including ballots and ballot boxes.
"We've been here since 5 o'clock this morning, but as you can see for yourself there's nothing," said Zacharia Traore, a shopkeeper and one of hundreds of people waiting to vote in a pro-Ouattara neighborhood in the southwestern city of Gagnoa.
An hour after the official start time, just 57 percent of polling stations were open, according to the POECI civil society observer platform. That had risen to 85 percent by 9:30am.
Few expect serious violence to mar the election, which sees voters with a choice of seven candidates for the presidency. But tens of thousands of soldiers, police, and gendarmes have been deployed across the country to secure the vote. Witnesses reported smooth and peaceful voting in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and in the towns of Man, Gagnoa and Korhogo.
Voter turnout will be critical in legitimizing Ouattara's mandate if he wins as expected. 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. Gbagbo himself 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 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."