ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The west African state of Ivory Coast voted peacefully on Sunday in long-delayed elections aimed at reuniting a nation split in two by a civil war that has also shaken a once-healthy economy.
The vote is essential to enable reforms to a cocoa sector that supplies more than two-thirds of the world market but is in decline. It will also, after six previous failed attempts to hold polls, help overcome the scars of a 2002-2003 civil war.
"This is a day of joy. We all thought it would never even happen and now it actually is ... The crisis is finished," said medical worker George Assamoi, 40, as he waited to vote at a school in the commercial capital Abidjan.
Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's main rivals are Henri Konan Bedie, a former president ousted in a 1999 coup, and Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and IMF official.
Most analysts following the election in the former French colony make Gbagbo the favorite to win in a runoff.
"I am happy that voting is proceeding normally today," Gbagbo said after casting his vote, echoing comments made by the other two earlier in the day.
Virtually no public transport and few taxis were working in Abidjan, whose streets were dotted with the armoured vehicles of U.N. peacekeepers posted at strategic positions.
Long lines of voters spilled out onto streets from schools that are hosting polling booths.
While some polling stations closed by 1700 GMT as scheduled, the electoral commission said many had opened two hours or more late due to logistical problems and so would be kept open longer to ensure a full 10 hours of voting.
Electoral commission spokesman Bamba Yacouba told Reuters in the northern rebel-held town of Bouake that voter participation nationwide was estimated at between 60 and 70 percent.
Electoral officials questioned during a tour of a dozen polling stations by Reuters in Abidjan said they saw turnout rates of 75 percent and higher. Ono Tomoyuki, chief observer from the Japanese embassy, said the rate in Bouake, the second biggest town, was around 80 percent.
The roots of Ivory Coast's war and the subsequent political stalemate go back to a dispute over nationality and who is eligible to vote in a country whose lush farm land attracted immigrants from across West Africa.
"I can see that people have come out to vote massively and there is complete peace that is existing in this center and also elsewhere that I have visited," U.N. force commander Major General Abdul Hafiz said, visiting a polling station in Abidjan.
Partly owing to the regional and ethnic support bases of the three main candidates, outright victory is unlikely in the first round, meaning a runoff should be held on November 28.
"The election results are likely to be contested and the second round could be delayed," Rolake Akinola, West Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group, said.
That could depress the price of Ivory Coast's $2.3 billion Eurobond, Africa's biggest.
But John Kufuor, Ghana's former president and the head of the Carter Center observation mission in Ivory Coast, said regional leaders remain deeply involved in the process.
"Ivory Coast is really important and I wouldn't be surprised that (there) may be that positive influence from around all of West Africa and beyond encouraging candidates to try to play fairly, to accept the outcomes," he told Reuters.
Preliminary results are due within three days.
A 9,500-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, backed up by several hundred French soldiers, is on standby in case of any trouble.
Additional reporting by Ange Aboa and Tim Cocks in Abidjan and Charles Bamba in Bouake; writing by David Lewis and Mark John; editing by Ralph Boulton