Hopes for peace as Central Africans vote in presidential run-off

BANGUI, Central African Republic – Voters in the Central African Republic were casting their ballots Sunday, February 14, in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off which they hope will bring peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.

The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls go smoothly.

"What we want first and foremost is security to give a new impetus to the country," said a soldier who gave his name as Ndadder as he waited to vote in PK5, a Muslim-majority area in the capital Bangui which had been the scene of bloody religious violence. 

The two candidates vying for the presidency are both former prime ministers who have campaigned on promises to restore security and boost the economy in the mineral-rich but dirt-poor country.

The first round on December 30 was won by ex-premier Anicet Georges Dologuele, a 58-year-old former central banker known as "Mr Clean" for his attempts to bring transparency to murky public finances when in office. He took 23.78% of the vote.

He faces off against Faustin Archange Touadera, also 58. The former maths professor, who is standing as an independent, surprised everyone by coming second in the first round with 19.4%.

Touadera's popularity stems from a measure he introduced as prime minister – paying government salaries directly into bank accounts, ending decades of pay arrears and unpaid wages.

Dologuele wished voters a happy Valentine's Day as he cast his ballot in Bangui, adding: "Valentine's is a celebration of love, and I'd like Central Africans to see voting today as an act of love for their country."

He spoke of the "joy of being able to vote in the second round and in doing so, to participate in the transition and the start of a new era for the Central African Republic."

Touadera, speaking to voters near the working-class neighborhood of Boy Rabe, pitched himself as the people's candidate. 

"I am confident of the outcome of the vote," he told supporters who were already addressing him as "president". 

Voters were also casting their ballots Sunday in a re-run of the last legislative election, also held on December 30, that was later annulled over numerous irregularities.

A staggering 1,800 candidates are competing for a place in the 105-seat National Assembly.

Polls opened at 6 am local time (0500 GMT) – though some polling stations opened late – with the vote set to close at 1500 GMT.

"Overall it's going very well, except for some problems in certain polling stations," said Marie Madeleine N'Kouet Hoornaert, president of the National Elections Authority.

Voters in some parts of Bangui and the provinces complained of being turned away because their names were not on the list or because they were not carrying proof of identity.

Tight security

The race for the presidency is expected to be close.

Dologuele has won the backing of the person who came third in the first round – with 12 percent of the vote – while Touadera has the support of 22 other candidates who ran in December.

CAR's most recent episode of bloodletting was sparked by the March 2013 ousting of long-serving president Francois Bozize, a Christian, by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.

The coup sparked a series of revenge attacks involving Muslim forces and Christian vigilante groups known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) militias.

Thousands were slaughtered in the spiral of atrocities that drove about a tenth of the population of 4.8 million to flee their homes.

Both the current presidential candidates are Christians.

While December's polls passed off peacefully, security is expected to be tight with UN peacekeepers and French soldiers helping to patrol areas where tensions remain high.

Turnout was high in December's elections, despite huge logistical problems and grinding poverty. Some 1.3 million valid ballots were cast in a country with nearly two million registered voters.

Christians and Muslims alike came forward on a massive scale to ensure their names were on the electoral roll and collect their voting cards, many saying they never again wanted to hear gunfire on their streets.

The elections came after 93 percent of voters backed a constitutional referendum that cleared the way for the vote.

It also followed Pope Francis's groundbreaking trip in November – his first to a war zone. His impassioned plea for peace and reconciliation has been taken up by candidates, political parties and religious leaders. – Celia Lebur and Christian Panika, AFP / Rappler.com