Voters in Central African Republic complained of long delays at polling booths as the poor but resource-rich state staged an election seen as a first step in overcoming years of instability.
President Francois Bozize, in power since a 2003 coup, goes into the vote the favourite but could need a run-off to secure victory. Even then, his authority is expected to be challenged by political rivals and bands of rebels and bandits.
The former French colony is rich in diamonds, uranium and gold, but instability and isolation, with roads often crumbling not far outside the capital, has discouraged investment, Reuters reports.
A Reuters reporter said early turnout was brisk but many voters said they had been unable to cast their ballot either because of a lack of equipment at some polling stations or because their name was not on the electoral list.
“Seven polling stations in my district have not been supplied with voting equipment so I have not been able to vote so far — you think that’s normal?” Issac Gotoua, a resident of the capital Bangui, said shortly before midday.
The polls, originally due last April, have been delayed three times due to lack of funds and trouble disarming rebels who have signed peace deals but still roam the northwest and the northeast. Results are due to be announced within eight days.
Five candidates are standing. Bozize’s main challengers will be Ange Felix Patasse — an ex-president ousted by Bozize who returned from years in exile to run as an independent candidate — and Martin Ziguele, a former prime minister of Patasse’s.
Opposition candidates have signalled concerns about possible irregularities in the run-up to the poll, but Bozize has brushed them off as being “the same old song”.
“Democracy is taking root in Central African Republic,” he told reporters as he cast his ballot in Bangui.
A second-round run-off is set for March if no candidate wins an outright majority of the 1.8 million registered voters.
“The international community doesn’t want a mess. They want elections that are as good as can be expected,” said Ned Dalby, central Africa analyst at think-tank Crisis Group.
Bozize defeated Ziguele with 67 percent of the vote in the last election, but he has struggled to pacify or develop vast swathes of the landlocked nation, which is second from bottom on the United Nations index for development.
Dalby noted that, however, Bozize had since bolstered his position by co-opting some former rebels as advisers.
Aside from home-grown insurgents, who often run rackets, extorting from traders and local populations, Lord’s Resistance Army rebels who left Uganda years ago to roam across central Africa have moved into CAR’s east, terrorising civilians.
UN peacekeepers previously mandated to provide security in the north left last year but a regional peacekeeping force remains in the country to bolster weak national security forces.