Will Ivorian party spirit end the coups?

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Supporters of Laurent Gbagbo
Image caption,
There has been a carnival atmosphere as rallies unexpectedly began

One of the most expensive elections ever held will take place this weekend in Ivory Coast, where the world largely gets its key ingredient for chocolate.

Five years of postponements and an enrolment exercise lasting several years have finally brought the cocoa-rich West African nation to the cusp of its first open democratic elections at a cost of at least $413m (£262m).

Though now famous for producing footballers like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, the country was once considered one of Africa's most stable and prosperous states.

Successful elections would help close the chapter on a decade of civil conflict and coups and see the departure of the 8,000 UN peacekeepers.

It was only about two weeks ago that Olivier Coulibaly, 34, and most of his fellow Ivorians actually started believing presidential elections would happen this weekend.

"When I suddenly woke up and said, 'hang on, the candidates are out of the starting blocks', this is getting serious," he said.

Overnight the official campaign started and workers turned the main city Abidjan into a giant advertisement hoarding, decorated with images of political leaders all hoping to win Sunday's vote.

No rebel candidate

Most of the 14 candidates now hold several rallies each day.

The richest travel around in planes and helicopters to visit regional decision-makers and touch as many voters as possible.

"We feel like we are about to enter a tunnel," says Mr Coulibaly.

"We are leaving behind lots of things - violence, turmoil, death - and heading to a renaissance. But first we need to pass the dark tunnel."

Image caption,
A supporter of former President Henri Konan Bedie, who is calling for a return to the good old days

The country has been split in two since a failed coup in September 2002 which left rebels in control of the north.

The rebellion sprang from discrimination against northerners who ethnically and culturally have much in common with people in Mali and Burkina Faso.

A peace deal signed in March 2007 brought the head of the rebels, Guillaume Soro, into the government as prime minister alongside his former enemy, President Laurent Gbagbo.

It is an inter-Ivorian solution which has succeeded in bringing elections, where international peace deals had failed.

At the age of 38, Mr Soro is too young to stand in the election. Instead the former rebels, who still have a hold on the administration in 60% of Ivorian territory, now cast themselves as an impartial force.

"The New Forces won't have a candidate in the presidential elections," the most senior New Forces official in the ex-rebel capital Bouake, Col Maj Bamba Sinima, told me.

"They won't have a fundamental role to play, except that they will participate in the securing of a peaceful electoral climate."

Rite of passage

The key issue has been identification.

The peace process instituted a system to distribute new identity documents to confirm the nationality of those from the north - including presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara, who has been barred form previous races.

In the run-up to the first open presidential elections since independence in 1960, the former rebels have partially disarmed.

However they remain in control of weapons, and the thousands of pro-Gbagbo militias in the west remain armed.

Bouake, in the centre of the country, is Ivory Coast's second largest city and the base for the New Forces' rebels.

Elections are seen as a rite of passage that should normalise the lives of those caught on the rebel side of the conflict.

"We are all longing for this day and we are all blessing God so that this day will be a bright day," said English teacher Kone Ouanmourou at the University of Bouake.

"We hope everything goes smooth, everybody will be able to vote and choose the candidate that he had in his mind."

Official campaigning ends on Friday night and each of the three main candidates is trying to orientate the debate towards the ground they feel most sure on.

Ethnic divisions

Current President Laurent Gbagbo has had years of support from the state media and seems to have the most money to spend on the campaign after 10 years in office.

He accuses the other 13 candidates of being puppets for foreign forces, particularly the former colonial power, France.

Former president Henri Konan Bedie is calling for a return to the good old days - the first 39 years since independence when the country was led by his PDCI party, for most of that time as a one-party state.

The country grew fast in the first decades after independence thanks to an emphasis on exporting cash crops for export and maintaining close ties with France.

Image caption,
Alassane Ouattara is the first northerner and the first Muslim to stand in a presidential election

Mr Bedie, 76, is part of a loose alliance of opposition candidates which includes Alassane Ouattara, the third main candidate.

A former IMF deputy managing director, Mr Ouattara is campaigning for more rigorous economic management, zero corruption and he promises to "get Ivory Coast back to work".

His opponents accuse him of having had a hand in the 2002 rebellion, and pro-Gbagbo supporters continue to provoke suspicions about his nationality.

He is the first northerner and the first Muslim to stand in a presidential election in Ivory Coast.

The end of the one-party state in 1990 led to a flurry of new parties, but also the opening up of regional ethnic divisions exploited to exclude some candidates from the race.

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