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Ivory Coast Opposition Rallying for Fair Elections

Opposition leaders in divided Ivory Coast have recently been holding public rallies denouncing the government and telling their supporters to change the country through voting. Most analysts agree that the demonstrations are a democratic step towards presidential elections, but warn that if the government does not fulfill its promise of hastening the election process, the peaceful demonstrations could turn violent. Phillip Wellman reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Both former president Henri Konan Bedie and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara spoke at recent rallies, confirming they would be running in Ivory Coast 's next presidential election and urging their supporters to register to vote.

The election was supposed to be held in 2005, but has been postponed twice through U.N. resolutions as the county remains split in two. An independent electoral commission in Ivory Coast has said the next election is likely to take place in late 2008.

Bedie and Ouattara both say President Laurent Gbagbo has been oppressing the nation and that elections should take place as soon as possible. Bedie says the current administration is worse than colonialism.

President Gbagbo says he is trying to reverse decades of outside meddling, especially by former colonial power, France.

Despite past tensions, the recent rallies were conducted peacefully. African analyst for the London-based risk consultancy group Global Insight, Kissy Agyeman, says this proves Ivorians are tired of conflict.

"It seems like people are more ready for change," she said. "Whereas maybe two or three years ago, when the civil conflict was still ongoing, these sorts of comments could very easily have fuelled something or provoked a backlash. But now there is an acknowledgement that these comments are in keeping with this whole democratic process of election campaigning and promoting the party."

Agyeman says that the first signs of change came in March when Mr. Gbagbo and New Forces rebel leader Guillaume Soro signed a peace deal, which resulted in Soro becoming prime minister. The aim of the deal is to assure free and fair elections.

But she says that Mr. Gbagbo and Soro have since formed a bond that some hard-liners say is too close for comfort. Suspicions of a hidden agenda have been voiced, although Mr. Gbagbo and Soro have denied this.

Agyeman says the fact that most opponents are expressing their opposition in words rather than with violence is a good sign for a peaceful, future election.

"I think it is a value of healthy democracy because it definitely shows that the elections are on the horizon even though the precise date is not yet known," she added. "It would be a worry if the opposition figures, especially the main ones, had nothing to say on the matter. It would create a sense of foreboding I would think."

Africa Confidential analyst Patrick Smith agrees that hearing the opposition's voice is important in any democracy, but also says that the threat of renewed instability exists in Ivory Coast.

"I think one can say that things are better now than they were a year ago," he said. "There is more hope. But the biggest hurdle still needs to be jumped and that is the issue of the Ivorian identity question. And really until that is resolved - who is an Ivorian and who is entitled to join politics - I do not think you are going to see any lasting resolution to the crisis."

Civil war broke out in Ivory Coast in 2002, after rebels took up arms on behalf of millions of undocumented northerners who were being treated as foreigners and second-class citizens.

A program was recently initiated to issue identity papers to the northerners, which will in turn, allow them to register to vote.

Mr Gbagbo's side says only several hundred thousand northerners have been denied papers, but opposition supporters say the number is closer to several million.

The other key steps in the peace process, reunification of the army and disarmament of former fighters, have yet to be accomplished.