SA MAY not have vital interests at stake in the Cote d'Ivoire election, but questioning the results certified by the United Nations (UN) risks harming those that do. Most at risk are the long-suffering Ivorian people and their neighbours, who are struggling to deal with a rising tide of refugees as a result of this unnecessary and unjustified crisis over presidential succession.

The dispute between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and the winner of the November presidential runoff, Alassane Ouattara, must not be allowed to obscure the facts.

Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor and I led the Carter Centre's election observation mission to Cote d'Ivoire, which was preceded by the centre's monitoring of voter registration since 2007. We and all other accredited observers judged the election free and fair. Gbagbo's allegations of fraud and appeals for a recount seek only to subvert the legitimate result. SA should stand firmly with the UN in rejecting them.

UN involvement in the election was mandated by the Ouagadougou Peace Accord that ended the 2002 civil war. All factions, including Gbagbo's, pledged to allow the Ivorian people their choice of a leader through an open election with the result validated by the UN. Donor countries generously provided 300m to ensure a process, if not the results, would be acceptable to all contenders. Gbagbo had been in power since 2000 and was a privileged candidate.

Although he governed without a popular mandate, when he demanded the UN's special representative be recalled, New York did so and sent the scrupulously impartial YJ Choi. As the election approached, Gbagbo decided the National Electoral Commission was too independent, so he dissolved and rebuilt it, with a more compliant chairman, who went into hiding after the vote until finally mustering the courage to announce the results: Ouattara had won 54,1% to 45,9% with a turnout of 81,1%.

How Ouattara won is rather simple. Among the 14 candidates in the first round, three dominated: Gbagbo led with 38%, Ouattara second with 32% and former president Henri Bedie took third place with 25%. Gbagbo hoped to pick up the Bedie supporters, who are predominantly southern, Christian and ethnically indigenous, by reminding them Ouattara is northern, Muslim and of a family of immigrants from Burkino Faso.

The strategy failed. Bedie voters responded to their leader's urging and backed Ouattara instead.

Had Gbagbo won, the Carter Centre would have been among the first to congratulate him. After the first round of voting, Gbagbo knew he led because he and Ouattara had poll watchers in virtually every station checking the counting and filing of results in multiple copies, as required. Had there been major fraud it would have been difficult to conceal and during the second round our observers reported just one complaint among hundreds of polling stations.

Gbagbo knew he had lost within hours of the final vote. Compiling official results took time and was delayed by threats and intimidation against the National Electoral Commission.

Under article 64 of the Ivorian constitution, the Constitutional Council can overrule the electoral commission but can only annul the entire election and order another one. It cannot reject the votes from particular districts in a presidential election as it did on December 3 for Ouattara's strongholds. Even so, differences in voting in these districts between the first and second rounds are insufficient to affect the outcome. Rather it was the Bedie swing vote that mattered.

The costs of Gbagbo's intransigence weigh heavily on his people, who deserve no less than the statesmanship witnessed in neighbouring Guinea, which simultaneously held its first truly open national election since independence. In that case, the first-round winner, Cellou Dalein, saw his first-round victory also overturned by a coalition, with Alpha Conde elected by only a 5% margin. Dalein accepted the result with magnanimity and is free to run again. The Ivorian tragedy is that Gbagbo puts his personal interests ahead of the nation's, and SA is wrong if it uncritically accommodates them.

- Stremlau is vice-president at the Carter Centre.