People in the Central African Republic (CAR) are voting on Wednesday in a crucial election that it is hoped will restore peace and democracy to a divided country scarred by years of violence.
The presidential and parliamentary vote has been delayed several times, with the latest date set for Sunday pushed back again by three days to allow officials deal with technical and organisational difficulties.
“This time, everything will be fine throughout Central African Republic,” said Julius Rufin Ngoadebaba, spokesman for the National Electoral Authority, rejecting allegations that illegal voter cards had been distributed.
Thirty candidates are competing for the presidency, with some of the frontrunners including former prime ministers Martin Ziguele and Anicet Georges Dologuele.
Other top candidates include a former foreign minister, Karim Meckassoua, and Bilal Desire Nzanga-Kolingba, who is the son of a former president.
More than 1.8 million people are expected to vote, at more than 500 polling stations across the country, which has been ruled since May 2014 by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza.
CAR has been rocked by violence since March 2013 when a largely Muslim alliance of rebel groups known as the Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize.
When a Seleka’s leader left power under intense international pressure in 2014, a swift backlash by the Christian anti-Balaka groups against Muslim civilians followed.
Sectarian violence has continued ever since, displacing nearly one million people.
“I’m pleased Bozize is gone, now we need a president that can allow our country to re-find its place,” Igor Brice Yandia, an ex-Seleka fighter told Al Jazeera from Bria, the heart of the Seleka rebellion and one of the poorest parts of the country.
“That’s why I put down my weapon to go to work and to show others it can be done.”
CAR approved a new constitution after a referendum on December 13, a vote seen as a test for Wednesday’s elections.
“We are ready and determined to go ahead with the vote of December 30, because it is time our country comes out of this long crisis, recovers its institutions and that Central Africans find reconciliation and live together,” Mireille Djapou, a 26-year-old student, told the AP news agency.
In the capital Bangui, many people said they were desperate to vote and that they hoped the election would bring change to the country.
“I must vote because it’s my duty as a citizen,” 40-year-old Jean-Jacques Youka told the Reuters news agency.
Gbenda Jocelyne, 37, said: “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 success of the election will be maintaining security and the 11,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, has promised a heavy security presence.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday called on politicians to resolve disputes that may arise from the elections through legal and peaceful means.
He pointed to the 1.8 million people on the voting rolls as a “clear demonstration of the population’s engagement to exercise their democratic franchise” and urged “all national stakeholders to commit themselves to ensuring that the elections are conducted in a peaceful and credible manner”. Al Jazeera