Voting began at the Central African Republic presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, in a key test for one of the world’s most troubled countries.
The polls come after a week of turbulence, marked by allegations of an attempted coup, the brief seizure of CAR’s fourth largest city and the sending of military personnel from Russia and Rwanda to help its besieged government.
UN peacekeepers and local and Rwandan soldiers patrolled the streets of the entire capital, with armored vehicles placed outside polling stations armed with machine guns, AFP reporters said.
There was a delay of about 50 minutes before some polling stations in Bangui opened because ballot papers had not been delivered on time.
“It is very important for me to be here, as a citizen. I believe that this vote will change our country, whoever the president becomes,” said teacher Hortense Reine outside a polling station at Boganda High School in the east of the city, where about 30 people stood. Queue.
High-ranking officials at the election organization authority told AFP that where polling stations had opened late, voting would continue for another 50 minutes.
Questions about legitimacy
The chair of the presidency is incumbent Faustin Archange Touadera, who was elected in 2016.
The mineral-rich but poverty-stricken country has been chronically unstable since independence 60 years ago.
Thousands of people have died since a civil war broke out in 2013 and more than a quarter of the population of 4.9 million have fled their homes. Of these, 675,000 are refugees in neighboring countries and cannot vote.
Although bloodshed has decreased in intensity over the past two years, violence is still chronic. Militia groups hold over two-thirds of the territory, raising fears of threats that could also affect turnout.
Experts and opposition figures have already questioned the legitimacy of the president and 140 MPs to be elected, given the obstacles to a large proportion of people outside Bangui voting freely.
On December 19, the government accused armed groups of gathering and advancing against the capital Bangui in a conspiracy allegedly carried out by the dismissed former president Francois Bozize, a charge he denies.
Fear of the rebels swept the city in the following days, even though the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA said their progress had been halted.
“There are security risks surrounding the election, but I will go and vote,” 29-year-old Lionel Fotot said on Thursday as he went to pick up his ballot paper at a school in Bangui.
“How do we vote?”
Others, however, were less optimistic, with sporadic battles potentially undermining the vote.
“Everyone is fleeing at the moment. I’m holed up at home,” Robert from Boali, 80 kilometers north of Bangui, told AFP by phone, with explosions audible in the background.
“How do we vote when we do not even have our ballot papers,” he added.
The rebel coalition on Wednesday announced a 72-hour “unilateral ceasefire” during the introduction of the vote, only to suspend it on Friday.
In a statement approved by two of its six members, the coalition said it would resume its march on the capital.
On Tuesday, CAR’s fourth largest city, Bambari, 380 km northeast of Bangui, was surprised by an armed group called Unity for Peace in Central Africa (UPC).
Security forces, backed by UN peacekeepers, regained control the next day.
Sixteen candidates are vying for the presidency.
Touadera’s main rival is Anicet Georges Dologuele, an economist and former prime minister.
He receives support from Bozize after his own bid was suspended by CAR’s Supreme Court for being on a wanted list in 2014 and under UN sanctions.
A vote will be held on February 14 if there is no total majority in the first round.
About 1,500 candidates question the 140 seats in the National Assembly, but many have not been able to fight due to uncertainty.