Ivory Coast is preparing for regional elections Sunday, amid a dispute between the government and opposition parties over the distribution of new voter identification cards. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara says most of his followers have not received their new cards, and he has warned violence could break out, if his supporters are not allowed to vote.
Voters on Sunday will cast ballots to choose the regional councils of each of Ivory Coast's 58 departments.
Tensions have risen since the West African country's electoral commission last month said it would require voters to present newly-issued identification cards in order to vote.
Many voters have yet to obtain their cards, a large number of which officials began distributing only this week. Opposition parties are demanding that people be allowed to vote using other identity documents, such as driver's licenses and passports, as they have in past presidential, legislative, and municipal elections.
The government says the new cards are necessary to prevent fraud.
Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who along with other major candidates was excluded from running in the presidential election nearly two years ago, says many of those who have not yet obtained their cards are members of his Rally of the Republicans Party, RDR. Mr. Ouattara accuses the government of President Laurent Gbagbo of trying to rig the regional elections by preventing RDR supporters from voting.
"They know that if these are fair, transparent, and equitable elections, it will show that they are the party, which has the least number of districts and the lowest percentage of voters," he said. "This will show clearly that this is a government, which is not legitimate and which is a minority government. "
Mr. Ouattara has called on his followers to go the polls to try to cast ballots even if they do not have the required identity cards. He warns there could be outbreaks of violence, if his followers are not allowed to vote.
"Clearly, if the electoral commission wants to go ahead with these restrictive policies, it will be acting against the wish of the majority of the people," he said, "and this inevitably will create disorder at the polling booths. You'll have thousands of people lining up to try to vote. So the vote would not be transparent and fair. It would not be credible election in our view."
Analysts here consider the upcoming regional elections important because the results will give opposition parties a sense of where they stand ahead of the 2005 presidential elections. Sunday will be the first time all parties participate in elections that include the country's entire electorate.
Political and ethnic clashes ahead of the elections killed at least five people in the central city of Daloa last week. Ouattara followers, who are mainly Muslim northerners, fought with President Gbagbo's supporters, largely Christians from the south and west of the country.