(New York Times)
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — A historic presidential election intended to unify this long-divided nation slipped further into uncertainty on Thursday, as a heated tug of war emerged over who had the power to proclaim a winner.
After days of delay, the top electoral official pronounced the opposition candidate the surprise winner in Sunday’s presidential runoff, potentially opening a new chapter for the country but also increasing the risk of political violence in this onetime economic powerhouse that has long since fallen on hard times.
The candidate, Alassane Ouattara, 68, a former prime minister, banker and top International Monetary Fund official, received more than 54 percent of the vote, the election commission said, defeating President Laurent Gbagbo, who gained 45 percent. Mr. Gbagbo has remained in office five years beyond his legal mandate, through perpetual maneuvering and election postponements.
Ear-splitting cheers and chanting immediately erupted as the results were announced in a heavily guarded lagoon-side hotel that serves as a headquarters for the Ouattara camp. Many in the crowd said it represented a fresh start for the country, the world’s leading cocoa exporter, after 10 years of steady economic decline, civil war and ethnic strife during Mr. Gbagbo’s presidency.
But their joy could be short-lived. Mr. Gbagbo’s spokesman has already rejected as fraudulent the results from a vast northern area of the country that is Mr. Ouattara’s stronghold.
Then on Thursday evening, the head of the country’s constitutional council — a close ally and appointee of Mr. Gbagbo who must sign off on the voting results — said the electoral commission was “not capable” of declaring the outcome because it had missed its Wednesday deadline. He said it was up to his institution to do so, in the days to come.
The long-awaited vote has been a significant international concern, prompting the United Nations Security Council to warn officials here not to “obstruct the electoral process” and to say it was ready to take “appropriate measures.” The government here, however, has been relatively impervious to international pressure, brushing off repeated calls to hold elections over the years.
There were other signs that power might not be handed over easily. The country closed its borders Thursday and ordered foreign television stations blocked. The night before, as many as eight Ouattara supporters were killed by automatic-weapon-toting gunmen at an opposition party headquarters, witnesses and local party officials said.
The blood had not dried in the walled compound Thursday morning as dozens of angry Ouattara supporters milled about, pointing out piles of bloodstained clothes and bullet holes in the walls.
Witnesses said that about 20 uniformed, masked men with guns had come over the walls after the government’s 7 p.m. curfew as dozens of Ouattara supporters were gathering.
“They opened fire at point-blank range,” said Adama Kone, who survived the attack.
“They started firing on everybody,” said Bamba Kretigui, another Ouattara supporter. “They made us go on our knees.”
Political violence has long been a staple here, with attacks by pro-Gbagbo youth groups punctuating public life for more than a decade.
“The death squads are there to eliminate the opposition,” said an opposition party official at the compound Thursday morning, Idrissa Ouattara, who is not related to the candidate. Mr. Ouattara contended that some of the attackers appeared to be wearing police uniforms, while others made remarks about the supposed foreignness of the opposition candidate — another mainstay of political discourse in Ivory Coast.
It was on the pretext of such accusations that Mr. Ouattara’s candidacy was disqualified by the supreme court in 2000, leading to Mr. Gbagbo’s victory. Mr. Ouattara is from the largely Muslim north — which has been a de facto separate country from the Christian south since the 2002 civil war — and the debate over who really belongs in this nation, with its history of immigration, has haunted political life here.
An economist, Mr. Ouattara has weathered the vicissitudes of this country’s turbulent politics for years, including an attempt on his life in 2002. Before that, he served as prime minister under the man who led Ivory Coast to independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Political analysts say Mr. Ouattara, a technocrat, was chosen for the position precisely because his challenged nationality meant he posed no threat to the undivided power of the country’s ruler.
Even as his supporters were erupting in joy and chants of “ADO, ADO”— his initials — the studious Mr. Ouattara remained imperturbable Thursday afternoon. He walked calmly into a conference room at the hotel after the initial announcement of his victory, as local troops and United Nations peacekeepers stood guard warily outside. Quietly, he read a low-key statement, saying that his fellow citizens had shown their “desire for change” and their “determination to get out of this crisis.”
“Dear compatriots, our first ambition is to reunite the nation,” he said.
A supporter in the crowd, Ibrahima Doumbia, echoed his words in a packed hall upstairs: “It’s a new day in Côte d’Ivoire. The lighthouse-country has become a doormat. That’s over. Now, we’re waiting for the unity of all ethnicities.”