Voters in Central African Republic are heading to the polls in elections seen as a crucial step towards restoring democratic rule and ending years of violence that have left the impoverished nation split along religious lines.
Two former prime ministers, Faustin-Archange Touadera and Anicet-Georges Dologuele, are contesting the presidential run-off on Sunday while authorities attempt to re-run a first round of parliamentary polls which were cancelled over irregularities.
Central African Republic was plunged into the worst crisis in its history in early 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled President Francois Bozize.
Christian rebels responded to Seleka abuses, attacking the Muslim minority community. Thousands have died in the bloodshed, and one in five Central Africans has fled, either internally or abroad.
“I hope we will finish with these problems once and for all, and we will have a good laugh in the end,” said Parfait Gbokou, 30, who was among the first to cast his vote after polls opened at 6am (05:00 GMT) at a primary school in the centre of the capital, Bangui. Polling stations will close at 4pm local time (15:00 GMT).
A turnout of nearly 80 percent for a first round of voting in December was largely viewed as a popular rejection of the violence, which has left the northeast under the control of Muslim rebels while Christian fighters roam the southwest.
Both Dologuele, a banker, and trained mathematics professor Touadera have made the restoration of peace and security the centrepiece of their presidential campaigns. Both candidates are Christians.
Touadera has portrayed himself as an anti-corruption stalwart, while Dologuele pledges to revive the economy and draw in investors hesitant until now to exploit significant gold, diamond and uranium deposits.
Lieutenant General Balla Keita, commander of the UN mission known as MINUSCA, said he was confident the vote would be peaceful. At least 2,000 peacekeepers and police are on hand in Bangui, while 8,000 others are patrolling in the provinces.
“Right now we are comfortable with the level of security,” he said. “We are optimistic that everything will go well with the elections. But we know maybe there still could be issues and that with elections there could be sore losers.”