As Ivory Coast prepares for a tightly contested presidential run-off now scheduled for November 28, analysts and commentators are worrying the election may not end the country's division, split between a rebel-held north and a government-run south.
Immediately after it became clear the run-off would be between President Laurent Gbagbo and former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, one Ivorian newspaper called it "a duel to death." Ivorian newspapers, from all political stripes, were filled with a flurry of commentary and historical analysis.
Articles noted that in 1992 when Mr. Ouattara was prime minister under former long term post-independence President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Mr. Gbagbo, then an opposition pro-democracy leader, had been put in jail for organizing a student protest.
Mr. Gbagbo's supporters have accused Mr. Ouattara of being behind the northern rebellion which has cut the country in two since 2002, a charge the former International Monetary Fund official has denied. The presidential spokesman reiterated those accusations this week, calling Mr. Ouattara the "godfather of the rebellion."
Mr. Ouattara had been barred from previous Ivory Coast presidential elections over doubts concerning his nationality, but a key component of repeated peace deals with the rebels, who remain in control of the north, has been to allow him to run.
A former head of the powerful national student union Martial Joseph Ahipeaud wrote a long opinion article this week in which he said results of the first round, in an election delayed five years, indicated Ivory Coast is anything but a cohesive nation, and rather, he wrote, a confusing collection of different religious and ethnic groups.
Mr. Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, polled more than 95 percent of the electorate in many parts of the mostly Muslim-north in the first round, while getting less than five percent in certain parts of the mostly Christian west. Overall, he finished second with 32 percent of the vote, to Mr. Gbagbo's 38 percent, which included dominating percentages in southern, eastern and western regions.
The third place candidate, former President Henri Konan Bedie, got a sizable 25 percent, with strength in the Christian center. Mr. Bedie, as well as other minor candidates, is calling for supporters to vote for Mr. Ouattara in the run-off, in line with pre-election agreements.
Long-time journalist in Africa G. Pascal Zachary, who recently authored the book "Married to Africa," says if those votes add up to more than 50 percent, a Ouattara win would be significant. "He would be a symbol for a lot of reasons, of a more progressive forward-thinking Africa, where Muslims and Christians can co-exist, where moderate Muslims can play by the rules like he has been doing and rewarded with real power," he said.
Mr. Ouattara has long been the political favorite of many residents in Ivory Coast who are the descendants of migrant agricultural workers from neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of these residents, who have long complained of discrimination, were able to get Ivorian nationality and voting papers during the ongoing peace process.
But anytime there was an opposition protest during Mr. Gbagbo's presidency, there was a violent crackdown. When the Ivorian military bombed rebel areas in 2004 during the peace process, and the French rapid reaction force, which is still present, reacted by destroying Ivorian fighter jets, there were mass protests by so-called Young Patriots, fighting for what they called a second independence against the former colonial power.
Zachary says a Ouattara victory could be turbulent. "I think (Mr.) Ouattara is the way to go if we were just social engineering. On the other hand, obviously, there are determined factions within Cote d'Ivoire to prevent his victory and somehow those factions and people have to be mollified but they can be through some kind of negotiated settlement," he said.
Mr. Gbagbo's supporters say they believe many of Mr. Bedie's supporters will vote for the current president based on ethnic and religious preferences, so they are predicting victory for their own side.
In this case, many Ivorian commentators say the country could remain divided. Rebel leader Guillaume Soro is prime minister in a government of national unity, but Mr. Gbagbo has said he will choose a new prime minister if he gets a new term.
His opponents also fear the army will not accept a victory by Mr. Ouattara. A newspaper close to Mr. Bedie this week said Mr. Ouattara's victory would mean order and prosperity, while his defeat would mean anarchy and misery.
Zachary, who currently writes the popular Africa Works blog, says in the case of Ivory Coast, elections may not be the solution. "Elections are instruments to deliver goods. They are not ends in themselves, so sooner or later if this round fails to deliver a winner, a clear decisive winner, there needs to be a looking at alternatives. One of those is a negotiated permanent government, the second possibility is partitioning the country permanently," he said.
But a University of Quebec in Montreal Sociologist Marie Nathalie LeBlanc, who has studied identity issues in Ivory Coast for years, says she does not believe most northerners want to secede.
She says she believes the problem in Ivory Coast, also known as Cote d'Ivoire, is more about access to resources, than ethnic or religious differences. "It is a rich country and it is a territory that until the past few decades has managed to live off relatively well from its resources. The resources are not situated in the north of the country. I would say one of the realities of this whole geopolitics of Cote d'Ivoire is that the northern population has very little advantage to split from the rest of Cote d'Ivoire," she said.
Within this context, the August arrest of an Ivory Coast army colonel in the United States for allegedly trying to bring back millions of dollars in guns and ammunitions to Ivory Coast and circumvent an ongoing arms embargo has sparked additional fears among Ivorian commentators that an unsuccessful election, where the loser does not accept defeat, could spark a new round of fighting, rather than reuniting the country.