Polls have opened in the Central African Republic (CAR) to choose a new president and a new parliament amid fears of escalation of violence as the government tries to delay a rebel advance on the capital, Bangui.
Armed groups hostile to President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, have stepped up attacks since the Constitutional Court rejected several candidacies, including that of former President François Bozize, earlier this month.
Touadera is considered the favorite in the field of the 17 candidates.
His main challenger is Anicet Georges Dologuele, a former Prime Minister who finished second in 2016 and is supported by Bozize.
The election will go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes.
The crisis has exhausted many residents of the diamond and gold rich nation of 4.7 million, sparking fears of a return to the worst violence in CAR’s recent past.
Since its independence from France in 1960, the country has experienced five coups d’état and numerous rebellions.
Several opposition candidates as well as a newly formed coalition of armed groups – the Coalition of Patriots for Change (PCC) – called for postponing the elections, but the CAR government and the United Nations rejected the call.
The CCP – comprising several armed groups accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch (HRW) – launched an offensive last week and threatened to march on Bangui.
The government has called the move a “coup” led by Bozize, a claim the former president has denied.
The rebel alliance briefly captured Bambari, CAR’s fourth-largest city, last week, but their progress was halted when Russia and Rwanda sent troops to consolidate Touadera’s government, while the UN mission in South Sudan sent 300 peacekeepers to the country to “secure”. Sunday’s elections.
More than 55,000 people have fled their homes over fear of violence in recent weeks, according to the UN, while HRW said at least five civilians were killed.
On Saturday, the UN – which has more than 12,800 peacekeepers in the country – declared “unidentified armed fighters” killed three peacekeepers of Burundi during attacks in the central prefecture of Kemo and in the southern prefecture of Mbomou.
“We are going through a crisis but the government wants these elections to take place, regardless of the pressure exerted by the armed groups,” Alexander Cyril Ngozo, an election observer in Bangui, told Al Jazeera before the polls.
“I am particularly worried about my fellow citizens in the countryside. These are people who do not play politics. What is happening is not in their best interest and they are the ones who find themselves in this bad situation again.
Yvonne Vola, 80, mother of nine, is adamant about going to vote, hoping for “lasting peace”.
“I took my voting card and I will go vote. This is my country, and I will vote to find lasting peace. I want peace to continue selling my stuff, ”Vola, who sells peanuts and cassava on the side of a road in Bangui, told Al Jazeera.
“With nine children, I have to try a lot. Without peace, it doesn’t work. We will be hungry.
‘Determined to vote’
Denise Brown, head of the United Nations mission in the CAR (MINUSCA), said her agency was “determined” to help people exercise their right to vote in presidential and legislative elections.
Describing the situation in Bangui as calm, Brown told Al Jazeera on Saturday that all the instability in CAR was “localized in several communities in the west of the country”.
“The distribution of voter cards is underway and voters in this country who are registered to vote are coming in large numbers to collect their cards,” she said on the eve of the poll.
“The people are determined to vote tomorrow. And we are determined at the United Nations – with the support of the international community – to make sure that the vote takes place. “
The CAR Constitutional Court also ruled on Saturday that the presidential elections would go ahead as scheduled on Sunday.
“The court said the petitioners did not have strong enough grounds for the election to be postponed,” said Catherine Soi of Al Jazeera in Bangui.
“We have spoken to UN officials who say 70% of the country is safe enough for people to come and vote. We spoke to the government spokesperson who said yes they expected a low turnout but they hope that turnout won’t be slow enough to discredit the process.
Report by Adrienne Surprenant in Bangui