, Bangui, Feb 14 – Voters in the Central African Republic return to the polls Sunday to cast their ballots in a presidential run-off they hope will help usher in a new era of peace and stability after years of sectarian bloodshed.
Dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France more than five decades ago, the nation could take a step towards a rebirth if the polls go smoothly.
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 deeply impoverished 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 percent of the vote.
Dologuele will face off against Faustin Archange Touadera, also 58, a former maths professor standing as an independent who surprised everyone by coming second in the first round with 19.4 percent.
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.
As well as choosing a president, voters will on Sunday be asked to cast their ballots in a re-run of the last legislative election, also held on December 30, that was later annulled over “numerous irregularities.”
This election will see a staggering 1,800 candidates competing for a place in the 105-seat National Assembly.
– ‘Crucial choice’ –
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.
“It’s a crucial choice, the next president will rebuild our country, we expect a lot of him,” Gaston, a resident in the capital Bangui, told AFP on the eve of the vote.
The Central African Republic’s most recent episode of bloodletting was sparked by the March 2013 ouster of long-serving president Francois Bozize, a Christian, by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.
The coup sparked a series of revenge attacks between Muslim forces and Christian vigilante groups known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias.
Thousands were slaughtered in the spiral of atrocities that drove about one in 10 of the population of 4.8 million to flee their homes.
Both candidates competing for the presidency in Sunday’s election are Christians.
Even though the December polls passed off peacefully, security is expected to be tight with UN peacekeepers and French soldiers helping to patrol areas where tensions remain high.
December’s elections, despite huge logistical problems and grinding poverty, attracted a big turnout. 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 to collect their voting cards, many saying they never again wanted to hear gunfire and violence on their streets.
The elections came after 93 percent of voters backed a constitutional referendum that cleared the way for the vote.