Ivory Coast was set to vote in a parliamentary ballot on Saturday in a key test of stability after presidential elections last year marked by violence.
Grappling with a deep political crisis, President Alassane Ouattara has offered an olive branch to his former rival, Laurent Gbagbo, whose party has now lifted a decade-long boycott of elections.
His Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) is the driving force of a centre-left coalition named Together for Democracy and Solidarity (EDS).
More than 1,500 candidates are vying for the votes of roughly seven million people in a contest for the 255-seat National Assembly.
In contrast to the bloodshed that marked the October 31 presidential polls, campaigning has been as peaceful as it has been enthusiastic.
All the candidates have pledged support for peaceful elections and signed up to a code of conduct.
“The prospect (of a high turnout) favours peaceful elections,” said Adama Bictogo, a candidate for the constituency of Agboville, near Abidjan.
In the last legislative vote in December 2016, Ouattara’s RHDP party teamed up with the centre-right Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI), winning an absolute majority with 167 seats.
But last year’s crisis has shattered that deal.
– New alliances –
In an unprecedented move, the PDCI has forged an election alliance with the left-of-centre EDS — their declared aim is to prevent Ouattara and his party from “consolidating absolute power.”
As a result, some commentators believe these could be the most open elections in years, with the prospect that independents could hold the balance of power.
The October 31 presidential vote was marred by violence that claimed 87 lives and left hundreds of wounded.
Clashes had erupted over Ouattara’s bid for a third term — a plan that critics said sidestepped constitutional limits.
The 79-year-old was returned to power in a landslide thanks to an opposition boycott, but the country was mired in crisis.
Ouattara reached out to Gbagbo, whom he forced out in April 2011 after a post-election civil war that claimed several thousand lives and left the country deeply split.
After his ouster, Gbagbo, 75, was flown to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to face war crimes charges arising from that conflict.
He was acquitted in January 2019 and is now living in Brussels pending the outcome of an appeal.
Ouattara, in his declared vow to seal “national reconciliation,” has issued Gbagbo with two passports, one of them a diplomatic pass.
Gbagbo previously said he hoped to return in December but his supporters now say it will be in mid-March, and have set up a committee to prepare a spectacular welcome.
A notable absentee on Saturday will be Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko, who is seeking re-election in northern Seguela.
He left for France two weeks ago, purportedly for medical reasons.