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International Community Urges Ivory Coast to Hold Elections

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo (File)

International pressure is mounting for Ivory Coast to hold its long-delayed presidential elections, as controversy over the voter list threatens to once again push back the poll.

In January, President Laurent Gbagbo accused the Independent Electoral Commission of approving a voter list for the presidential elections that contains the names of almost one-half million foreigners. The Ivorian government ordered an investigation into the fraud allegations, and Mr. Gbagbo's accusations were followed by calls for the head of the electoral commission to resign.

Denying the fraud allegations, electoral commission head, Robert Mambé, said that voter list should never have been released.

Questions of nationality were divisive during the civil war in 2002 and remain sensitive in Ivory Coast, which has a large immigrant population.

In a statement released Sunday, the former rebel faction in the North, the New Forces, denounced what they called attempts to remove northerners from the already published provisional voter rolls, by questioning their nationality.

Ivorian officials have said political fights over the voter list will not delay the poll, but observers fear otherwise.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council extended the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast until May 30, hoping to encourage elections by extending the mandate for only four months instead of six.

World Bank Pres. Robert Zoellick (R) is greeted by the Pres. of Ivory Coast Laurent Gbagbo at the Presidential Palace in Abidjan, 29 Jan 2010
World Bank Pres. Robert Zoellick (R) is greeted by the Pres. of Ivory Coast Laurent Gbagbo at the Presidential Palace in Abidjan, 29 Jan 2010

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the Security Council hoped elections would take place by the end of May and called repeated delays "a source of real concern" for the United States and the Council.

"There was a very unfortunate incident in which a false voter list was released and that has set back the process further," Rice noted. "It is our view that the steps need to be taken by the Ivorian authorities to ensure that the election happens properly but also that the conditions for it are such that the people of Ivory Coast can all participate, that all eligible voters are allowed to cast their ballots and that it happen in a transparent and legitimate fashion," she said.

At a summit of the African Union in Ethiopia Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Ivory Coast "to overcome the outstanding issues and set a definite date for the elections," ideally holding them before the end of March.

The World Bank, which has already forgiven 55 percent of Ivory Coast's debt to it, has tied further debt relief to the holding of elections.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who left the Ivorian commercial capital, Abidjan, Saturday, said the world has been waiting for this presidential poll. And he deplored what could be another delay, resulting from recent issues with the voter list.

"I was encouraged that both the president and the opposition seemed to want to move forward on those elections, and I tried to do what I could to say that we thought that moving forward on those elections would enable us to help with further debt relief and further investment in the country," said Zoellick. "That's not only important for the people of Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast is a big economy in this region. It is important for stability and growth in the region as well," he said.

Ivory Coast was once an economic powerhouse in West Africa. It is the world's leading cocoa producer. But the political stalemate has prevented much-needed reforms to the cocoa sector, such as reducing high taxes on cocoa farmers. Zoellick called these reforms a "fundamental issue" for Ivory Coast.

The vote is an attempt to find a lasting political solution to nearly a decade of internal conflict in the once stable West African nation, but voter registration issues have prompted Ivory Coast to push back the election several times since President Gbagbo's mandate ran out in 2005.

The opposition has accused Mr. Gbagbo and his government of stalling elections to remain in power.

The election is currently planned for March, but no date has been announced.