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Ivory Coast leader stalling democracy

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — He got his first one-year extension in 2005. And another in 2006. And every year since, President Laurent Gbagbo has gone through the motions of organizing presidential elections, only to cancel them at the last minute.

His critics say he has taken the country hostage, putting democracy on pause by refusing to hold elections many say he will likely lose.

The latest cancellation was this month, when Gbagbo dissolved the government just weeks ahead of the ballot, claiming the voter roll had been tampered with and postponing the poll by two months.

It prompted riots that left at least five dead in a country that was once a model of political stability and economic prosperity. Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa producer, but its people have become poorer and impatient mobs have taken to the streets.

Although Gbagbo is known to have significant support in the country's south, experts and ordinary citizens say he doesn't have the numbers to win an election.

"All he is doing is trying to buy himself time," said political analyst and newspaper owner Abdoulaye Sangare. "It's so that he can fix his main problem, which is figuring out how to get elected."

Last year, the country's election commission produced a voter roll consisting of some 5 million voters whose citizenship had been confirmed and a gray list of 1 million who need to provide proof of their nationality to make the list.

Sangare said that soon after the list was delivered, the government audited it and concluded that the voters were overwhelmingly from ethnicities and regions of the country that favor the opposition. On Feb. 12, Gbagbo announced on state television he was unilaterally dissolving the government and its election commission, making it impossible for elections to go ahead.

Gbagbo's continued postponement of the election comes at a time when the population is feeling the economic pinch of higher food prices and growing unemployment.

In Abidjan's gritty Abobo suburb, where police beat back anti-Gbagbo protesters recently, teacher Yeo Klotioloma said students can no longer afford to buy books. Many don't eat properly and fall asleep in class, he said.

"Each time we think we're at the end, each time we think it's over, we go backward," said Klotioloma. "Gbagbo needs to go. He is just drawing out our misery."

Gbagbo came to power after a 1999 military coup led by Gen. Robert Guei. Guei organized elections the next year, but disqualified his top opponents — including toppled President Henri Konan Bedie and former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara.

Guei faced off against Gbagbo — and lost. When the general tried to claim victory, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets to prevent him from staying in power. Two years into Gbagbo's term, an armed uprising plunged the country into civil war.

When Gbagbo's first term expired in 2005, he argued elections could not proceed because rebels had not been disarmed. The United Nations gave Gbagbo one year to hold elections. As the deadline approached, the opposition said they would reject his request for another extension, but he forced it through.

In 2007, he signed a peace deal with the rebels, creating a unity government and a roadmap for elections. It called for the creation of an electoral commission that would include appointees from all political sides and whose task was to prepare the voter roll.

"So long as he will be able to avoid elections, he will not hold elections," said Ouattara, 68. "This is clear in my mind. He knows he cannot win. . . . Therefore — like many dictators — he prefers to take a chance and remain."

In dissolving the government, Gbagbo blamed the election commission and accused its opposition-allied chief of trying to add 429,000 illegitimate voters to the rolls.

The International Crisis Group said in a report that the delays are part of Gbagbo's strategy to "slow the process down." The report, published last year, predicted that Gbagbo would halt the electoral process at the last moment and accuse those responsible for registering voters of not doing their job properly.

Ivory Coast leader stalling democracy 02/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 7:31pm]
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