Low turnout for ICoast local polls amid opposition boycott

Ivorians turned out in low numbers for local elections Sunday seen as a test of stability in the west African nation amid high tensions in the face of a boycott by former president Laurent Gbagbo's party.

The UN had appealed for calm after skirmishes during the election campaign, voicing hope that the vote would help put the country on the path to "genuine democracy".

Several sources said the situation was calm, but turnout had been low, as polling stations began closing around 1700 GMT.

Some stayed open longer to compensate for voting delays in the main city of Abidjan and other urban centres caused by the late arrival of materials or staff in the morning.

They were the first such polls in more than a decade in the world's top cocoa producer and are seen as a trial run for the 2015 presidential election.

Ivory Coast is still recovering from years of unrest which came to a head when Gbagbo refused to admit defeat in the 2010 presidential vote.

Around 3,000 people died in the ensuing conflict and Gbagbo is now facing trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

President Alassane Ouattara's government is hoping the municipal and regional polls will set the foundations for a fresh political start.

Ouattara said as he cast his ballot that he hoped Ivorians could "vote in peace", describing the elections as "important for the decentralised running of the country".

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

It has refused to take part, just as it boycotted parliamentary polls at the end of 2011, although a few breakaway activists are running as independents. Fifteen party members have been suspended for campaigning.

The FPI has demanded a reform of the electoral commission and an amnesty for crimes committed during the 2010-11 election crisis.

It has also called for the release of its jailed leaders, beginning with Gbagbo himself.

About 5.7 million people, out of a population of 21 million, were eligible to vote in what is the last election before the presidential ballot, when Ouattara is expected to run for a second term.

The polls involve 84 candidate lists in the regional elections, while 659 candidates are standing in municipal elections.

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

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

The final days of the campaign were marred by clashes in several areas including Abidjan and towns in the west, an unstable region prone to violence.

Harsh language and hate speeches, with "calls for verbal and physical violence", have raised the "spectre of electoral violence" as in 2010, the Ivorian Movement of Human Rights warned ahead of the vote.

The head of the UN mission in the country, Bert Koenders, called Friday for a "free, transparent, calm and credible" vote, describing it as an "important barometer".

The "smooth running will help ease Ivory Coast onto the path of stabilisation, normalisation and genuine democracy," he told reporters.

Final results are expected in a few days.