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Voters cast their ballots in critical CAR elections

Issouf Sanogo, AFP | Election workers check vote materiels on December 29, 2015 at a polling station in Bangui.

Voters in the Central African Republic (CAR) on Wednesday cast their ballots in much-delayed elections aimed at restoring democratic rule in a country gripped by sectarian violence that has claimed thousands of lives.

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After three years of deadly political turmoil and months of concerted efforts by the international community to hold elections, polling finally got under way in the country's presidential and parliamentary elections.

Reporting from Bangui, FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris Trent said some polling stations in the capital opened two hours late due to logistical problems. “There were delays because the voting materials hadn’t arrived,” said Norris Trent. “They hadn’t been put in place before because of security concerns. At a referendum a few weeks ago, some polling stations were targeted by armed groups opposed to this election process,” she added.

“If that’s the situation here in the capital, questions remain about what on earth is going on in far-flung reaches of Central African Republic – very remote areas with very poor road networks that are very difficult to access.”

The difficulties underscored the challenges of holding nationwide elections in an impoverished country – one of the poorest in the world – that has been wracked by brutal sectarian violence since 2013.

Familiar faces, controversial links

Thirty candidates are competing for the presidency and many others are running for the legislature.

'This is not going to be an easy election'

In the absence of opinion polls or an incumbent, a likely winner has been difficult to predict, but leading candidates include former prime ministers Anicet-Georges Dologuélé and Martin Ziguélé.

According to Norris Trent, Ziguélé has been “facing difficulty shaking allegations that he is linked to ex-Seleka rebels who led a coup d’état, which produced instability for the past three years”.

In early 2013, mainly Muslim rebels from a group called the Seleka seized power in the majority Christian nation, provoking reprisals from the Christian anti-balaka militias, which triggered a cycle of violence that claimed thousands of lives and has displaced nearly one-fifth of the country's five million people.

However, Ziguélé received a boost on the eve of the elections when anti-balaka militias said they would support his candidacy.

Other leading candidates include former foreign minister Karim Meckassoua, and Bilal Désiré Nzanga-Kolingba, the son of a former president.

Reporting from Bangui, Norris Trent noted that the list of candidates included “many familiar faces”, adding that “while many are hailing these elections as perhaps a moment of change, it has to be said that a lot of the candidates are part of the political system”.

‘A miracle’

Despite the challenges, residents of Bangui said they hoped the elections would bring change to the country, ruled since May 2014 by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza.

"I must vote because it's my duty as a citizen," Jean-Jacques Youka, a 40-year-old Bangui resident, told Reuters.

Mirroring Youka’s optimism, Gbenda Jocelyne, 37, told a Reuters reporter: "The campaign has gone well. The situation in our country is difficult. There are always problems but we will vote for a new president to bring back security."

Crucial to the election will be maintaining security. The UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, has promised a heavy security presence.

Norris Trent noted that a UN official speaking off-the-record had told her that holding these elections “was a miracle”.

The difficulties encountered in merely holding elections underscores the tough challenges facing the winner of CAR’s presidential election.

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