By MARCO CHOWN OVED, Associated Press
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The outcome of Ivory Coast’s first presidential election in a decade remained in serious doubt Friday, with the constitutional council saying it would release its own results after the electoral commission declared the opposition leader the winner.
Supporters of the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo called Thursday’s announcement that he had lost an “attempted coup.” The West African nation’s borders were closed Friday, and foreign TV and radio broadcasts were banned indefinitely.
The vote was meant to restore stability after a civil war in 2002-2003 that split the world’s top cocoa producer in two, but tensions on Friday were on a knife edge. The United States urged the parties to accept the election commission’s results showing opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won.
“Credible, accredited electoral observers have characterized the balloting as free and fair, and no party should be allowed to obstruct further the electoral process,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.
Gbagbo’s five-year mandate officially expired in 2005, but he stayed in office while claiming elections were impossible because of the war.
Election commission chief Youssouf Bakayoko announced Thursday that Ouattara had won with 54.1 percent of the vote, compared to 45.9 percent for Gbagbo after days of backroom wrangling during which the ruling party had physically prevented other commission members from announcing the outcome of the vote.
In a press conference immediately after the announcement of his victory, Ouattara called on his opponent to respect the outcome.
“I remind my brother Laurent Gbagbo of our mutual engagement to respect the results proclaimed by the independent electoral commission,” he said. “I’m proud of my country which has resolutely chosen democracy today and I hope this leads to a durable peace in Ivory Coast.”
Those results though must be validated by the country’s constitutional council, which is led by ruling party loyalist Paul Yao N’Dre. N’Dre said on state-controlled television the electoral body’s results are invalid because the commission missed a constitutionally mandated midnight deadline on Wednesday.
“Only the constitutional council is qualified to give the results of this election,” he said in the broadcast. “There are some foreign TV channels amusing themselves giving results. Ivorians should consider these results null and void.”
Shortly thereafter, two decrees read on state TV announced that the country’s air, land and maritime borders had been closed and that all foreign radio and TV broadcasts were banned indefinitely. A spokesman for French channel TV5MONDE issued a statement saying their programs were no longer being broadcast due to the ban.
The crackdown appeared to extend to local media.
On Friday morning, the state-owned Fraternite Matin newspaper denounced the electoral commission announcement and accused foreign powers of interfering in the electoral process. Only 12 pages long on Friday, the normally thick newspaper is considered the only nonpartisan daily publication in the country and its coverage had been hailed by international observers as the most responsible and balanced.
Reached by telephone Thursday, one of Gbagbo’s senior advisers, Richard Assamoa, called the release of results “an attempted coup d’etat.”
Supporters of Gbagbo had prevented the election commission from announcing the outcome from Sunday’s runoff, saying tallies from at least four of the country’s 19 regions should be canceled because of irregularities. When a spokesman for the commission attempted to hold a press conference to announce partial results, officials loyal to Gbagbo stepped in front of the cameras and ripped the results out of his hand.
Authorities also said Thursday that police responding to a call at one of Ouattara’s offices had killed four people after being fired upon. The opposition coalition denied any weapons were on the premises and said the attackers fired first.
If Ouattara remains the victor of the race, he will become the first Muslim president in this nation whose rulers have always been Christian and whose first president built a basilica considered to be the largest in the world.
A former International Monetary Fund economist, Ouattara became the icon of Ivory Coast’s downtrodden immigrant community in a nation that became a magnet in the region because of its prosperity.
Ouattara, born in the north, had been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian, and that he was of Burkinabe origin.