Abidjan - Ivorians voted on Sunday to elect a new parliament in a poll boycotted by the party of former strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who is awaiting trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
The vote comes a year after conflict over a presidential election brought the world's top cocoa producer to the brink of civil war and follows a bloodstained campaign that left five people dead in the final week.
Turnout was weak but no incidents had been reported, a spokesperson for the United Nations peacekeeping mission said. About 5.7 million of a population of 21-million were eligible to vote.
Polling stations, watched over by 150 international and 3 000 Ivorian observers, closed at 5pm and the results are expected by mid-week.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara had urged voters to ignore the boycott call. The new parliament, he said, would be “truly consensual (and) democratic and and contribute to the strengthening of democracy in our country”.
“These elections are totally transparent and inclusive as we have more than 1 000 candidates for 255 seats.”
Gbagbo's supporters backed out of the election their leader was flown t to The Hague to await trial on alleged crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
That boycott meant that the coalition backing Ouattara was widely expected to gain a majority of the 255 seats in the new assembly.
“I came to vote so that Ivory Coast can find peace again,” said Mathieu Kouakou, a mechanic, after he cast his ballot in Abidjan's bustling Adjame district.
But Laurent Akoun, spokesperson of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), said the low turnout proved that the government is “illegitimate”.
“The masquerade has thrived. We are staying in our corner. We have given no call for violence or to prevent voters from voting,” he said.
“Do you think that after this election we can speak of democracy in Ivory Coast?” said a Gbagbo supporter in the Abidjan district of Yopougon, observing the party's poll boycott by downing a few beers with FPI members.
Ouattara, 69, took office six months after the November 2010 presidential polls as Gbagbo refused to step down, unleashing a conflict that claimed 3 000 lives in a country that was once a beacon of stability in West Africa.
Gbagbo - who held on to his job five years after his initial mandate expired in 2005 - was eventually captured in his presidential palace by pro-Ouattara forces in April, with support from French and United Nations troops.
The charges facing Gbagbo arise out of the deadly violence that resulted from his refusal to stand down
Some 25 000 members of the Ivorian security forces, backed by 7 000 members of the UN peacekeeping mission, were deployed to ensure security for the elections in the former French colony.
But in its boycott call, the FPI insisted that the conditions had not been met for fair elections. They called for the release of its main leaders - notably Gbagbo.
They have already described his transfer last week to the ICC as a “political kidnapping”, denouncing what they call “victor's justice” and vowing to pull out of the reconciliation process.
The ICC has carried out an investigation parallel to Ivorian justice, looking into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Gbagbo loyalists as well as Ouattara supporters.
Sangare Sanissi, a voter in Adjame, told AFP the election “is to turn the page on a black period in our country... we're too tired, we have to go forward”.
In Ivory Coast's second city Bouake, a Ouattara stronghold, turnout appeared far lower than in last year's vote.
Trader Mariam Coulibaly, 49, a local official for Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans party, said: “We must vote for our country's reconstruction and reconciliation.” - Sapa-AFP