ABIDJAN, Oct 30 – Ivory Coast prepared Saturday for a presidential election that has been postponed six times in five years and is seen as a chance to turn the page on political turmoil and vicious civil war.
About 5.7 million people are eligible to vote in the election beginning Sunday with three main candidates on the list — President Laurent Gbagbo, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara and ex-president Henri Konan Bedie.
"Can I count on you?" the incumbent Gbagbo demanded of tens of thousands of his supporters at a rally in the main stadium in Abidjan on the final day of campaigning on Friday.
"We will rehabilitate politics and when we are finished, never again will an Ivorian take up arms," he told the crowd that included people wearing his campaign colours of white and blue and was watched by a heavy police presence.
Ouattara wrapped up his campaign travelling on the back of a truck for several hours in a "peace parade" in Abidjan, the country\’s economic capital, as his supporters brandished placards reading "Goodbye Gbagbo".
The third candidate, Bedie, held his final rally in Grand Lahou, a coastal city west of Abidjan, where he urged his supporters to make the right choice.
"I am a leader, I\’ve led this country and I am here to lead it again," Bedie said, according to a transcript of his speech given to AFP.
Gbagbo, a strongman who was elected in 2000 and remains in power despite his mandate ending in 2005, declared Friday a national holiday to allow voters to collect ID and polling cards.
"I came here (on Thursday) from my village to collect my things. I am ready to spend all day in the queue to collect my papers," said 47-year-old Rachel Bogui.
The country\’s telecommunications authority announced meanwhile that text messaging would be suspended from Sunday to Tuesday for the vote, but it did not give an explanation.
Thousands of troops were being deployed across the country to ensure security for the poll, although campaigning has largely gone peacefully.
Once hailed as a model of west African stability, the country has drifted through years of political unrest, squandering gains made during the "Ivorian miracle" brought about by "father of the nation", President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, ruler from independence from France in 1960 to his death in 1993.
After a decade in power, 65-year-old Gbagbo is hoping to secure fresh legitimacy at home and abroad.
Bedie, who succeeded Houphouet-Boigny, is seeking a comeback after being overthrown in the country\’s first military coup in 1999.
And Ouattara, a 68-year-old former prime minister, has a score to settle after being excluded from the elections in 2000 amid questions over his Ivorian nationality.
After the first military putsch in 1999, a foiled coup against Gbagbo in 2002 escalated into a full-scale civil war in which thousands were killed.
The country is divided in two, with UN and French peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone between the north, held by the former New Forces rebels, and Gbagbo\’s government-controlled south.
But despite occasional deadly outbreaks of violence, a March 2007 peace accord has held and a disarmament programme has meant that areas of the north have gradually returned to government control.
The vote is being closely watched by the international community.
"The Ivorian government, the candidates, their supporters and all political actors have an obligation to ensure that the long-delayed presidential elections are held in a peaceful and transparent manner," US President Barack Obama said in a statement this week.
UN envoy Choi Young-jin said that all candidates should accept the results.
"For my part, I will take all steps necessary to safeguard the verdict of the ballot box, in line with the mandate of certification that has been confided in me by the Security Council," he said.