, ABIDJAN, Dec 11 – Ivorians voted Sunday to elect a new parliament in a poll boycotted by the party of former strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who is awaiting trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
The vote comes a year after the aftermath of a devisive presidential election brought the world’s top cocoa producer to the brink of civil war and follows a bloodstained campaign that left five people dead in the final week.
Turnout was weak, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission here said, adding however that no incidents had been reported some four hours into the voting.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara urged voters to ignore the boycott call, saying the new parliament would be “truly consensual (and) democratic … and contribute to the strengthening of democracy in our country.”
With Gbagbo sitting in an International Criminal Court (ICC) cell, the coalition backing Ouattara is widely expected to gain a majority of the 255 seats in the new assembly.
Ouattara, 69, took office six months after the November 2010 presidential polls as Gbagbo refused to step down, unleashing a conflict that claimed some 3,000 lives in a country that was once a beacon of stability in the west African region.
Gbagbo, who held on to his job five years after his initial mandate expired in 2005, was eventually captured in his presidential palace by pro-Ouattara forces in April, with support from French and UN troops.
“I came to vote so that Cote d’Ivoire can find peace again,” said Mathieu Kouakou, a mechanic, after he cast his ballot in Abidjan’s bustling Adjame district.
Some 25,000 members of the Ivorian security forces, backed by 7,000 members of the UN peacekeeping mission, have been deployed to ensure security for the elections in this former French colony.
Laurent Akoun, spokesman of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), said the low turnout proved that the government is “illegitimate.”
“The masquerade has thrived. We are staying in our corner. We have given no call for violence or to prevent voters from voting,” he said.
The FPI said in its boycott call that conditions were not met for fair elections and has asked for the release of its main leaders — notably Gbagbo, with whom reconciliation “will be difficult” while he is facing trial in The Hague.
The FPI has called its champion’s transfer last week to the ICC a “political kidnapping,” denouncing what they call “victor’s justice” and vowing to pull out of the reconciliation process.
The ICC has carried out an investigation parallel to Ivorian justice, looking into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by both Gbagbo loyalists as well as Ouattara supporters.
Sangare Sanissi, a voter in Adjame, told AFP: “This is to turn the page on a black period in our country. We’re too tired, we have to go forward.”
In Bouake, a Ouattara stronghold, turnout appeared far lower than in last year’s vote.
Trader Mariam Coulibaly, 49, a local official for Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans party, said: “We must vote for our country’s reconstruction and reconciliation.”
A septuagenarian farmer Drissa Diallo, wearing a long white tunic, was among the first to vote in Bouake’s working-class Dar Es Salam district.
Showing his ink-stained finger, he said: “I hope the elections will bring a final end to the crisis so the country can regain its stability.”
After a political and military crisis lasting more than a decade, home-made guns, Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-launchers are circulating freely in the country.
About 5.7 million of a population of 21 million are eligible to vote, with polling stations to close at 5:00 pm (1700 GMT), watched over by 150 international and 3,000 Ivorian observers.
Election results are expected mid-week.
Ouattara faces the daunting task of reconciling the divided country and integrating the rebels who fought for him into the pro-Gbagbo armed forces.
He must also breathe new life into the economy, which shrank six percent during the crisis this year.