The Central African Republic went to the polls Sunday for presidential and legislative elections that follow a week of turbulence including accusations of an attempted coup and the brief seizure of the country's fourth-largest town.
The frontrunner for the presidency is incumbent Faustin Archange Touadera, who was elected in 2016. His main rival is Anicet Georges Dologuele, an economist and former prime minister.
Dologuele has the support of former president Francois Bozize, whose own bid was barred by the CAR's top court because he is under UN sanctions.
Bozize, who has been accused by the government of plotting a coup, urged people not to vote and backed a rebel coalition.
"I call on you, my countrymen, not to vote. Stay at home. Let Touadera place his ballot in the box alone," Bozize said in an audio message published online.
#ElectionsRCA : #UN peacekeepers from the #MINUSCA Rwanda Contingent stand guard at the Lycée Boganda voting centre in Bangui as Central Africans go to the polls in the 27 Dec. 2020 general elections pic.twitter.com/yosNfZs7Fu
- MINUSCA (@UN_CAR) December 27, 2020
According to the AFP news agency, UN peacekeepers and local and Rwandan soldiers were patrolling the streets throughout the capital Bangui, with armoured vehicles posted outside voting places.
Away from the capital, sporadic fighting was witnessed for nine days, with scattered incidents reported by mid-morning on Sunday.
In the north-west, more than 500 kilometres from the capital, rebels seized election materials in Koui and election officials received death threats in Ngaoundaye, according to a senior UN official. In some areas, rebels threatened anyone who went to vote.
Meanwhile, thousands of people had not received their voter cards due to insecurity, according to local and UN officials who all requested anonymity.
The mineral-rich but poverty-stricken country has been chronically unstable since independence 60 years ago.
Thousands of people have died since a civil war erupted in 2013 and more than a quarter of the population of 4.9 million have fled their homes. Of these, 675,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries and cannot vote.
Even though bloodshed has receded in intensity over the last two years, violence remains chronic. Militia groups hold sway over two-thirds of the territory, spurring fears about intimidation that could also affect turnout.
A runoff vote will be held on February 14 if there is no overall majority in the first round.