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Ivory Coast vote may end civil war

Election to decide if controversial Laurent Gbagbo stays in power.

Ivory Coast election
Ivory Coast is to vote on whether or not President Laurent Gbagbo can continue his 10-year rule. Here a supporter of challenger Henri Konan Bedie, performs at the last campaign rally at the main stadium in Abidjan. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Is President Laurent Gbagbo a dictator in all but name, clinging to power five years after his term in office expired? Or is he the man who brought peace and reunification to a country torn in two by civil war?

Ivory Coast's Gbagbo is often accused of being a despot, but he loudly proclaims to be the country's savior. Ivorians will finally have their chance to decide in the election on Sunday.

When Gbagbo was elected in 2000, it was the climax of a political fairytale. He embodied the fight against one-party rule first as a student agitator, then as the head of a clandestine opposition party. He was jailed, exiled and finally pardoned and allowed to run in the country's first openly contested election in 1990.

Ten years later, running against coup leader turned presidential candidate General Robert Guei, he took the country's supreme office riding a wave of anti-military sentiment and several days of violent street protest that left dozens dead.

But Gbagbo's time in office has been tumultuous, to say the least. The vote will be a referendum on whether Ivorians think Gbagbo has succeeded in holding things together despite staggering odds or whether he's the source of the country's rampant corruption and increasing poverty. Opinion is divided.

Two years into his presidency a failed coup split the country in two and a low-intensity civil war simmered for years, refereed by French troops who took up positions along a central buffer zone between the belligerent sides. Those French forces were transformed into a U.N. peacekeeping mission with a Security Council vote, though that didn't prevent them from opening fire on protesters in Abidjan in 2004, provoking an anti-French backlash that saw lynch mobs go door to door looking for white faces.

No French were killed but what was once the largest French expatriate community in the world was almost entirely evacuated in a matter of days.

Though the links with these gangs have never been proven, Gbagbo rode this wave of xenophobic fervor and encouraged patriots to defend the nation against foreigners.

Despite the flight of French businesses, Ivory Coast's economy continued to grow throughout the war, though poverty skyrocketed at the same time, with incomes dropping 15 percent since 1999, according to CIA statistics.

Ivory Coast, with 20 million people and a GDP of $35.8 billion, is the world's largest cocoa producer and its exports have run smoothly. Oil and gas development has continued unabated, but the benefits haven't trickled down to the population.

Much of this can be attributed to widespread and systematic corruption, says Christian Bouquet, professor of geography and specialist on Ivory Coast at the University of Bordeaux III in France.

“Corruption is difficult to measure, and it always existed in Ivory Coast,” he said. “But I think it's safe to say that it became generalized under Gbagbo, running into parts of society where it never existed before. Is it his fault? Well, he's done very little to fight it. He's been quick to blame everything on the war and political crisis.”

Ten years on, corruption appears to be the legacy of Gbagbo's time in power, visible on every street corner, whether it's a police officer running an impromptu roadblock who wants a little something for a coffee, or the tens of millions of dollars that go missing each year from the country's cocoa industry.

Students complain that they have pay their way through university entrance exams while parents bemoan the fact that public schools can only find a desk for their child if they're willing to buy one and bring it in.

“We're tired of being excluded not because of what we know, but because of how much money we have,” said Jean-Paul N'gura, a student from Bouake, in the country's north. “Under Gbagbo the system is broken. I'm voting [for opposition candidate Henri Konan] Bedie so that university becomes fair again.”