Voters trickle into Ivory Coast legislative polls

By LAURA BURKE | December 11, 2011 | 9:07 AM EST

In this Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 photo, supporters of legislative election candidates from the party of president Alassane Ouattara march through the streets of the Abobo neighborhood, Abidjan, on the final day of campaigning ahead of Sunday legislative elections, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The poster at front reads 'United, to reconstruct Abobo.' The demonstration is on the final day of campaigning ahead of Sunday legislative elections, in Ivory Coast before Ivorians elect a national assembly for the first time in more than a decade on upcoming Sunday after months of violence that killed thousands.(AP Photo/Emanuel Ekra)

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Small numbers of voters trickled into polling stations on Sunday in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, as voters choose parliamentary representatives more than a year after a presidential poll sent the West African nation spiraling into violence.

In Abidjan's Abobo neighborhood, some 20 voters waited for polls to open Sunday morning. That polling station, like others in the city, opened late. Officials said the turnout paled compared to last year's presidential poll. This year's parliamentary election is the first such vote in 11 years.

Electoral commission spokesman Baba Coulibaly said late-opening stations will close late.

Some 1,100 candidates are vying for 255 legislative seats.

The poll is overshadowed by fallout from last year's contentious presidential poll. Former strongman Laurent Gbagbo awaits trial at The Hague over accusations that his forces committed murder and rape after he rejected his loss in the election. His party is boycotting Sunday's election.

President Alassane Ouattara voted in Abidjan around midday and called on Ivorians to go to the polls. He said he hoped to see more than a third of voters cast their ballots.

"In my view, this election is essential because for the past 11 years, Ivorians have not been able to vote for their representatives in parliament," he said. "Today the had a possibility to do so, so they should not miss this opportunity."

The boycott will likely benefit candidates loyal to Ouattara, who took power in April with the help of French and U.N. forces.

Voter Vincent Dano said he voted, but that the political crisis earlier this year may have prevented others from voting.

"I voted. Not a lot of people have," he said. "Many people lost their identity cards during the crisis, so they can't vote."

Government spokesman Kone Bruno said turnout was low because the election is local and follows last year's more critical presidential poll.

"Last year there was massive voter turnout because people hadn't voted since 2000," he said.

A spokesman for Gbagbo's party, Augustin Guehoun, said the army under Ouattara's control is forcing people to vote in some towns in the west and in some pro-Gbagbo neighborhoods of Abidjan. U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure said observer have been in polling stations since 7 a.m. and have not seen such acts.

The U.N. deployed 7,000 troops to provide security, and 25,000 Ivorian police and military will also guard the poll.

Officials hope a calm election can bring stability and usher in a period of economic growth in this once-flourishing nation, which is a leading cocoa producer.

But the boycott and violence during the campaign have cast doubt over a peaceful outcome.

Gbagbo's party claims the electoral commission is loyal to the new ruling party and will manipulate the results. They also claim that the army under Ouattara's command is leading a campaign of intimidation against their supporters.

But the bigger issue, Gbagbo loyalists say, is the growing sense of "victor's justice" over Gbagbo's treatment. Prosecutors at the war crimes court say about 3,000 people died in violence by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede. Rights groups and the U.N. have said crimes were committed by both sides, but no member of Ouattara's side has been charged.

The boycott is also seen as politically strategic. For months the party has said it would only participate if the government freed Gbagbo and his allies. After their plea was denied, they announced Ouattara's government was not willing to make concessions.