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Early returns show win for Ivory Coast leader

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Africa's oldest and longest-serving leader, appears to be on his way to a landslide victory in the Ivory Coast's first openly contested presidential elections since it achieved independence in 1960. Preliminary results announced on national television Monday gave Houphouet-Boigny about 85 percent of the vote in balloting against the opposition candidate, Laurent Gbagbo, a history teacher.

The vote Sunday was the first in which a leader of one of Africa's old-style one-party ruling systems consented to be challenged at the ballot box since talk of democratic reform began sweeping sub-Saharan Africa this year.

But commentators said Houphouet-Boigny's win was seriously tarnished by opposition charges of cheating and ballot-rigging. Experts predicted that a final count would take another day.

The president, 85, is seeking a seventh five-year term.

In a hoarse but impassioned voice, Gbagbo said Monday some of his poll watchers had been beaten when they tried to inspect ballot boxes. In other cases, he said, his supporters had broken open boxes and found them already full of votes for Houphouet-Boigny.

The aggressive campaigning by the opposition parties, who denounced Houphouet-Boigny as corrupt and called in general terms for a more just distribution of national wealth, polarized politics in the West African country. The confrontation was sharpened by the ruling party's occasionally heavy-handed efforts to restrict the opposition's access to government-run television and radio.

Judging from street interviews, the excitement of many people at having a real political choice was tempered by worry over whether Houphouet-Boigny was capable of handling the agonizing task of arresting the economy's slide. The president is the third-longest-serving leader in the world after Fidel Castro of Cuba and Kim Il-sung of North Korea.