Expectations high as Central African Republic elects new president
Postponed several times due to violence and logistical problems, the first round of the polls was again delayed by three days from Sunday, partly because of reports of clashes in regions where armed gangs still hold sway.
The election, which also includes legislative polls, follows a referendum on constitutional change that was backed by a resounding 93 percent of voters, widely seen as showing how much people long for peace and a return to normal life.
Three men are tipped as front-runners in a race with 30 candidates. All are experienced politicians who held high-profile posts in previous governments and one comes from the small Muslim minority population.
The violence in the mineral-rich but dirt poor country followed the ouster in March 2013 of president Francois Bozize by a mainly Islamic rebel alliance, the Seleka, which installed Michel Djotodia, the first Muslim head of state of a mostly Christian country.
Djotodia quit in January 2014 after disbanding the Seleka, but attacks on Christians by rogue Muslim forces led to brutal reprisals against Muslim districts by “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete”) militias from Christian communities.
According to AFP, Christians and Muslims alike who came massively to ensure their names were on the electoral roll and to collect their voters’ cards, vowed that never again would they wanted to hear gunfire or other manifestations of violence.
While 30 candidates vie to become president, at least 1,800 people want a place in the 105-seat National Assembly. Two of the three men far ahead of the crowd in the presidential race were prime ministers under the late president Ange-Felix Patasse: Anicet Georges Dologuele and Martin Ziguele, who are both Christian.
The third, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, is a Muslim with a serious chance in the race and a good business reputation. He served Bozize from 2003 to2013 in successive posts, including as foreign minister.
The three previous presidents have been barred from standing again. Catherine Samba Panza had overseen a political transition administration.
Bozize and Djotodia are both in exile and both face UN and US sanctions stemming from violence. The latter stepped down under strong foreign pressure after failing to rein in forces that led to fears of genocide along religious fault-lines.