ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — The head of Ivory Coast's electoral commission on Thursday declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the West African country's contested presidential election in comments that were not broadcast on state TV. Ruling-party loyalists called the announcement an "attempted coup" and took to the airwaves to denounce them as unofficial.
Election commission chief Youssouf Bakayoko said Mr. Ouattara had won with 54.1 percent of the vote, compared with 45.9 percent for incumbent Laurent Gbagbo after days of backroom wrangling, during which the ruling party physically prevented other commission members from announcing the outcome of the vote. Mr. Bakayoko left the commission's headquarters unannounced and slipped into the fancy Gulf Hotel, where he made the announcement.
The hotel then replayed his declaration on the large speakers on the hotel's lawn, blasting the news as crowds gathered and opposition supporters began running through the streets in celebration.
The race is far from over because the victory must be validated by the country's constitutional council, which is led by ruling party loyalist Paul Yao N'Dre. Mr. N'Dre appeared on state-controlled television, where he said that the electoral body's results were not valid because the commission had missed a constitutionally mandated midnight deadline on Wednesday.
"After the failure of the (election commission) to find a consensus, only the constitutional council is qualified to give the results of this election," he said in the broadcast. "There are some foreign TV channels amusing themselves giving results. Ivoirians should consider these results null and void."
The development heightens uncertainty and casts a shadow over the country's first election in 10 years, which was meant to restore stability after political infighting plunged it into civil war in 2002. The conflict officially ended in 2003, but the country was severed in two, with a government-controlled south led by Mr. Gbagbo and the north, where Mr. Ouattara comes from, in rebel hands.
The continuous delay of the election by Mr. Gbagbo, whose term expired in 2005 and who claimed the election was impossible because of the war, destroyed the economy of the world's top cocoa producer, secy foreign investors packing, emptied out what was once one of Africa's chicest destinations' sporting skyscrapers, gourmet restaurants and lagoon-facing boulevards.
Reached by telephone Thursday, one of Mr. Gbagbo's senior advisers, Richard Assamoa, called the release of results "an attempted coup d'etat."
Supporters of Mr. Gbagbo prevented the election commission from announcing the outcome from Sunday's runoff, saying tallies from at least four of the country's 19 regions should be canceled because of irregularities. When a spokesman for the commission attempted to hold a press conference to announce partial results, officials loyal to Mr. Gbagbo stepped in front of the cameras and ripped the results out of his hand, blocking him from reading them.
In a press conference immediately after the announcement of his victory, the 68-year-old Mr. Ouattara called on his opponent to respect the outcome.
"I remind my brother Laurent Gbagbo of our mutual engagement to respect the results proclaimed by the independent electoral commission," he said. "I'm proud of my country, which has resolutely chosen democracy today, and I hope this leads to a durable peace in Ivory Coast."
Authorities said Thursday that police responding to a call at one of Mr. Ouattara's offices had killed four people after being fired upon. The opposition coalition denied any weapons were on the premises and said the attackers fired first.
If Mr. Ouattara remains the victor of the race, he will become the first Muslim president in this largely Christian nation. A former World Bank economist, Mr. Ouattara became the icon of Ivory Coast's downtrodden immigrant community in a nation that became a magnet in the region because of its prosperity, and drew in tens of thousands of laborers from dirt-poor Burkina Faso to the north.
Mr. Ouattara, born in the north, had been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not really Ivoirian and that he was of Burkinabe origin.