By MARCO CHOWN OVED, Associated Press
|AP – Supporters of opposition leader
burn tires in protest
following the results of the
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast’s political crisis deepened Friday as the constitutional council declared incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo the winner of the disputed election, reversing the outcome backed by independent observers and raising fears of violence.
The new results released on national television by a Gbagbo loyalist came as foreign TV and radio were taken off the air, blocking the earlier announcement by the country’s election czar. Those results — which were considered credible by the African Union, the United Nations and the White House — gave opposition leader Alassane Ouattara 54.1 percent of the vote, compared to 45.9 percent for Gbagbo.
The new figures putting Gbagbo on top with over 51 percent of the vote were broadcast in a continuous loop on TV and on radio stations throughout the country, even though the results were immediately rejected by the United Nations, which is responsible for certifying the final results and which held a press conference to reiterate that Ouattara had won.
The comments by the top U.N. official in the country, Young-Jin Choi, as well as those by Ouattara, who proclaimed himself a winner at a press conference, were not broadcast locally. They were only carried on foreign channels that citizens could only access if they have satellite TV. Text messaging was also cut off, making it still more difficult for Ivorians to get a complete picture of events.
As soon as Gbabgo was declared the victor on national television, angry youths took to the streets, burning tires, and pulling down kiosks and billboards. The presidential election was meant to restore stability after a civil war erupted in 2002, destroying the economy of one of the most affluent countries in Africa. Instead the election is now casting a growing shadow as it becomes increasingly clear that Gbagbo is unwilling to step aside.
The head of the constitutional council Paul Yao N’Dre said on state TV that the council was invalidating results from seven of the nation’s 19 voting regions because of evidence that pro-Gbagbo voters were intimidated by mobs. The new figures put Gbagbo on top by chucking out some 500,000 ballots from Ouattara strongholds, representing almost a tenth of all the ballots cast. He also said the election commission had lost its authority to proclaim results because they had missed a Wednesday deadline to announce the figures.
The country’s constitution gives the council the final word on the outcome of the vote, but a 2007 peace deal signed by Gbagbo said the United Nations would also need to certify the results. Choi made clear that the U.N. was standing by the earlier results putting Ouattara ahead.
“The results of the second round of the presidential election as they were proclaimed by the president of the Independent Electoral Commission do not change. This confirms Alassane Ouattara as winner of the second round,” Choi said at a press conference attended by numerous reporters but not broadcast on local TV.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared his support for Young-Jin Choi’s certification of Ouattara as the winner and sent his congratulations to the new president, according to his spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The 68-year-old Ouattara, a studious former economist for the International Monetary Fund, held his own press conference a short while later.
“This declaration is a declaration being made by the president of Ivory Coast,” he said. “The special representative of the Secretary-General just certified the results given by the Independent Electoral Commission which declares me the winner of the second round of the election. I am thus president of the Ivory Coast.”
For days, the ruling party had physically prevented the spokesman of the election commission from announcing the provisional results of Sunday’s runoff, going so far as to rip the results out of his hands as he tried to read them in front of TV cameras earlier in the week.
And for five years since his last term expired in 2005, Gbagbo repeatedly canceled the date for this election, claiming first that the West African country was too volatile and that security could not be assured and later over technicalities like the composition of the voter roll.
The United States has urged Gbagbo to accept the election commission’s results showing 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.
The African Union warned the government to put the nation first and to accept the results. “Any other approach risks plunging (Ivory Coast) into a crisis with incalculable consequences for the country, as well as for the region and the continent as a whole,” the AU said in a statement.
The country was placed on lockdown immediately after the commission announced Ouattara’s win on Thursday, with a decree read on state TV saying the nation’s air and land borders had been closed and that foreign TV and radio had been banned.
That means Ivorians are only able to hear the ruling party’s versions of events. Although the election commission chief’s announcement was not carried on the air, the hotel where Youssouf Bakayoko spoke on Thursday night began replaying the announcement on the speakers in its garden soon after he declared Ouattara the victor.
The news then spread by SMS, telephone calls and Twitter to tens of thousands of Ouattara backers, who began celebrating in the streets.