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Central Africa heads towards high-risk elections

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Supporters of incumbent president Faustin Archange Touadera gather during his opening campaign rally for the presidential election in Bangui, on December 12 2020. – The first round of the presidential election is set for December 27 and tensions are rising between the presidential party and the opposition, in a country shattered by civil war and armed groups which occupy two third of the territory (Photo by Camille LAFFONT / AFP)

The Central African Republic heads towards presidential and legislative elections this month that are freighted with risk for one of the world’s poorest and most troubled nations.

The country spiralled into conflict in 2013, sparking French military intervention that led to elections won by Faustin-Archange Touadera.

Even though inter-communal fighting has receded in intensity in the last two years, violence remains entrenched.

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Militias control two-thirds of the country’s territory and could be poised to gain if the December 27 vote leads to political gridlock or a crisis.

Here are the key questions:

A clear presidential winner?
Political analysts say Touadera, 63, dominates the field of 17 presidential candidates.

The country’s top court has rejected the bid of his main rival, ex-president Francois Bozize, on the grounds that he was being sought for alleged murder and torture and was under UN sanctions.

Bozize, 74, who came to power in a coup in 2003 before being overthrown in 2013, said he accepted the decision.

He has thrown his weight behind former prime minister Anicet-Georges Dologuele.

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Hans de Marie Heungoup, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), said Bozize’s backing for Dologuele could make it tough for Touadera to win more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff.

“A second round would certainly be perilous for the sitting president, who could face a united front of opposition,” he said.

The opposition has already said it believes the Touadera camp will resort to fraud to ensure a first-round win.

What about the parliamentary polls?
Here, the competition looks set to be tougher.

The president’s United Hearts Movement (MCU) party “does not yet have a solid foothold and while the KNK (Bozize’s party) is eliminated from the presidential election, it will be on the legislative ballot,” Heungoup said.

Bozize’s party retains a large following, especially among the Gbaya ethnic group, the country’s largest.

The KNK is also firmly rooted in the northwest, the most populated after the capital Bangui, while the rest of the opposition also has strongholds throughout the nation.

Voting based on these loyalties “is even stronger in legislative elections than in presidential elections,” Heungoup said.

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What are the risks of violence?
Diplomats and political analysts say the risk comes more from militia groups rather than from large-scale protests.

The government and 14 armed groups signed a peace accord in February 2019 that allotted senior positions to militia chiefs.

Even so, observers say armed groups could still disrupt the vote, angered that many of their preferred candidates have been barred from running.

The United Nations mission in the CAR (MINUSCA), with 11,500 peacekeepers, has promised to deploy a large force to ensure security.

Touadera’s camp has accused Bozize, a former general who has played a prominent part in decades of turmoil, of seeking to make a violent comeback.

“It would be a pretty bad idea to try something before the elections, as he would get the entire international community on his back,” said Thierry Vircoulon, central African director at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) think tank.

Vircoulon and other specialists said the greater risk of a flareup would come after the elections, rather than before.

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Central African Republic
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