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Regional Elections Held in Ivory Coast - 2002-07-07

Polls have closed following regional elections in Ivory Coast, where tension ran high throughout the Sunday, amid a dispute over voter identification cards.

Turnout was visibly low at polling stations in Abidjan. By the time polls closed on Sunday, many bureaus in the commercial capital were reporting slightly more than 10-percent participation.

Heavily armed paramilitary police patrolled the streets, and police officers were posted at the poll entrances.

The atmosphere at the polling stations in Abidjan was calm, but tense. A large number of would-be voters was turned away, precinct workers said, because they did not present new voter identification cards that were required by the country's independent electoral commission. Many of those who were not allowed to vote stood and waited outside polls, hoping there would be a last-minute exception.

At one polling station in Abidjan's working-class Adjame district, people gathered at the entrance, and demanded to vote using other identification documents. Paramilitary police, armed with rifles and tear gas, were called in to disperse the group.

Thirty-eight-year-old Alassane Traore was among those chased from the scene. He told VOA he feels disappointed and angry that he was not allowed to cast a ballot.

Mr. Traore said, "This was an attempt by the security forces to intimidate people, and prevent them from exercising their civic rights. I do not think that is just. We do not need that." He said, "The result is a low turnout. This is not democracy. This not a transparent election. I think we all feel the same thing, indignation."

Tensions rose in the days leading up to the election, when opposition leader Alassane Ouattara called on followers of his Rally of the Republican Party, RDR, to attempt to vote, with or without the required identity cards.

Mr. Ouattara complained that most RDR members had not received their voter identity cards. The opposition leader alleged that the government of President Laurent Gbagbo decided to require the new cards in order to rig the polls in favor of his party, the Ivorian Popular Front, or FPI. Mr. Ouattara accused the government of maneuvering to keep RDR supporters out of the polls.

On Friday, President Gbagbo delivered a strongly worded speech, saying the identification requirement would be strictly enforced.

Sunday's elections were held in order to fill regional councils for each of Ivory Coast's 58 departments.

Analysts here consider the poll a test of President Gbagbo's mandate, two years after he was swept to power by a popular uprising that ended a 10-month period of military rule. This was the first election since the return to civilian rule that saw the participation of all parties and the full electorate.

RDR supporters say the results will serve as an indicator of whether Mr. Ouattara might be able to win the next presidential election in 2005. The opposition leader was barred from running in the last election, due to what the Ivory Coast supreme court said were doubts about his nationality.

A judge in recent days granted Mr. Ouattara a certificate recognizing his Ivorian citizenship.