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Central Africa votes to heal wounds after sectarian bloodletting

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The Central African Republic holds delayed presidential and parliamentary polls on Sunday, with voters desperate to usher in peace after the country’s worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.

The presidential election looks set to be a tight run-off between two former prime ministers in the mineral-rich but dirt-poor country dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France more than five decades ago.

The first round of voting on December 30 was won by Anicet Georges Dologuele, a 58-year-old former central banker known as “Mr Clean” after his attempts to bring transparency to murky public finances when in office.

He 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 of voting 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.

The election 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 the December campaign.

– ‘Anti-balaka militias’ –
Whoever wins will hope to turn the page on years of fighting in the vast country, only fractionally smaller in area than Afghanistan.

The most recent episode of bloodletting was sparked by the March 2013 ouster of long-serving president Francois Bozize by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka, which installed Michel Djotodia as the first Muslim leader of the predominantly 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.

Thousands were slaughtered in a spiral of atrocities that drove about one in 10 of the population of 4.8 million to flee their homes.

The Central African Republic’s own security forces — the army, the police and the paramilitary gendarmerie — are patrolling areas where tension remains high between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka elements.

They are backed by around 11,000 UN and French peacekeeping forces. But although the armed forces have stabilised the situation, they do not control the entire country, which covers almost 623,000 square kilometres (241,000 square miles).

The international peacekeeping efforts have also been undermined by a string of sex abuse claims.

– ‘Grinding poverty’ –
Despite huge logistical problems and grinding poverty, December’s vote attracted a huge turnout, with 1.3 million valid ballots 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 election 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 — and his impassioned plea for peace and reconciliation has been taken up by candidates, political parties and religious leaders.

Both former prime ministers competing for the presidency in Sunday’s election are Christian.

As well as choosing their next president, voters will also cast ballots in a re-run of a legislative election also held on December 30 but later annulled due to “numerous irregularities.”

This election will see a staggering 1,800 candidates competing for a place in the 105-seat National Assembly.

However, three previous presidents are barred from standing again: former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba Panza, who has overseen a political transition, as well as Bozize and Djotodia.

Bozize and Djotodia are both in exile and both face UN and US sanctions stemming from the 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.



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