Central African Republic votes for new leader

Central African Republic rebel-leader-turned-President Francois Bozize has faced off against his main rival in an election run-off he hopes will bring him victory and the legitimacy he’s lacked since declaring himself head of state in a coup two years ago.

Vote counting began immediately after polls closed on Sunday, and partial results may be announced as early as Monday, election officials said. Final results are not expected for about 10 days.

Bozize is favoured to win the second-round poll, which many voters in the Central African Republic are hoping will end an era of army coups and revolts.

His main rival, Martin Ziguele, served as prime minister under former president Ange-Felix Patasse, whom Bozize toppled in March 2003. Bozize led a rebel army that captured the capital, Bangui, in a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire.

Turnout appeared high in the capital on Sunday, with tens of thousands of people lining up at schools and government buildings converted into polling stations, marking their choices privately behind curtains and tossing their ballots into clear boxes.

In the first round on March 13, Bozize won about 43% of the vote, less than the simple majority needed for a victory.

Ziguele took 23%, while third place went to former military ruler Andre Kolingba, who garnered 16% and claimed the poll was fraudulent.

“The second round of this election is an important step for the people of the Central African Republic to complete the work they started in March,” Bozize told reporters in brief comments after casting his ballot at City Hall.
“They have to elect the head of state.”

Three others who lost the initial 11-man race were rallying behind Bozize. Many believe their support will give him the edge he needs to win.

About 1,5-million of the impoverished nation’s 3,6-million people were registered at 4 000 polling stations nationwide. Voters also cast ballots for 85 seats up for grabs in a 105-seat legislature.

There were no reports of violence or significant fraud.

Former Burundi president Pierre Buyoya, heading a delegation of monitors from French-speaking nations, said it is too early to say whether the vote was free and fair. He said the French bloc will release its conclusions later.

“Democracy is what people everywhere in the world are advocating for,” said Buyoya, who himself seized power in a 1996 coup in Burundi.

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic has weathered at least nine military revolts and uprisings, often launched by disgruntled soldiers angered over poor pay—or no pay at all.

While the landlocked nation is rich in gold, diamonds and other minerals, its governments have been chronically cash-poor and unable to meet payrolls of the military and civil servants.

Bozize toppled democratically elected Patasse, who now lives in exile in Togo and was barred from running in the election.

Bozize has managed to keep the country relatively calm and set up a transitional government of national unity that brought in some of his opponents.

Fred Zinga, a 27-year-old unemployed primary-school teacher, said the return of democracy and international aid is key.

“We want a democratically elected president,” Zinga said after casting his ballot. “And we hope that ... the international community will help [the Central African Republic] tackle some of its financial problems.”

Businessman Olivier Mahamat said maintaining security is vital.

“What we need is a head of state who can restore peace and order,” the 30-year-old said. “We need peace and security to do business.”

But many believe soldiers like Bozize—who declared himself president after his guerrillas swept into Bangui—ruined the country.

Taxi driver Pierre Mego (30) said he cast his ballot for Ziguele for one reason—he’s not in the military.

“I voted for Martin Ziguele because he is a civilian,” he said.—Sapa-AP

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