Local polls due in Ivory Coast under threat of clashes

Ivorians will vote Sunday in local elections seen as a trial run for a presidential poll in 2015, but tension is high as the party of ousted president Laurent Gbagbo boycotts the poll.

Ivory Coast is still recovering from years of unrest which came to a head when Gbagbo refused to admit defeat in the 2010 presidential election. Around 3,000 people died in the ensuing conflict before he was captured.

President Alassane Ouattara's government is hoping this weekend's vote will set the foundations for a fresh political start.

However, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which backed Gbagbo during his 10-year rule (2000-2010) and after his arrest in April 2011, has dismissed the poll as a sham.

It has refused to take part, just as it boycotted parliamentary polls at the end of 2011, though a few breakaway activists are running as independents.

The FPI has demanded a reform of the electoral commission and an amnesty for crimes committed during the violent electoral crisis of 2010-2011.

It has also called for the release of its jailed leaders, beginning with Gbagbo himself. He is detained at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, facing trial for crimes against humanity.

The two parties in power, Ouattara's Rally of Republicans (RDR) and the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) of former president Henri Konan Bedie, already have an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

They are guaranteed the lion's share of the regional votes.

But they are also competing against each other in some places; and are up against deeply entrenched independent candidates in others.

The final days of the campaign, which ended on Friday, were marred by physical clashes and invective.

The Ivorian Movement of Human Rights (MIDH) earlier this week warned about the rising political temperature.

Harsh language and hate speeches, with "calls for verbal and physical violence", have raised the "spectre of electoral violence" as in 2010, it said.

It appealed to candidates to accept the results -- or failing that, to challenge them through the proper legal channels.

A senior government official however played down the recent tension in comments to AFP.

And Inza Diomande, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), said things would calm down once the Ivorian army had deployed, backed by the UN mission in Ivory Coast, UNOCI.

One UN observers however was less optimistic. He said there had already been clashes at Seguela in the northwest and the economic capital Abidjan, as well as in towns in the west, an unstable region prone to violence.

These local elections are the last before the 2015 presidential election, when Ouattara is expected to run for a second term.

About 5.7 million voters, out of a total population of some 21 million, are eligible to cast their ballots in the vote in regional elections for 84 lists of candidates; and in municipal elections with a choice of 659 candidates.

Voting will take place between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm (0700 to 1700 GMT) Sunday.

The poll is the first of its kind in more than a decade in west Africa's leading economic power.