Central African Republic vote faces credibility question

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Central African Republic has staged presidential and legislative elections, defying many who predicted a disaster in a country hamstrung by strife and weak governance.

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Sunday’s vote is a key step for Africa’s most troubled state - a byword for grinding poverty and militia brutality, still wracked by a civil war that erupted in 2013.

In the week before the election, the government accused a coalition of armed groups of working with an ex-president to topple President Faustin Archange Touadera, and three UN peacekeepers were killed.

While Touadera, 63, is strongly favored to win a second term, experts point to several factors that will shape his legitimacy:

-Ballot security: In a country where armed groups hold sway over two-thirds of the territory, votes have to be transported to Bangui to be counted.

Provisional results are expected from January 4, but no final results are expected before January 18. A runoff will be held on February 14 if there is no outright winner in the first round.

Those three long weeks provide plenty of opportunity for votes to disappear - a scenario that notably happened in Touadera’s own surprise election in 2015-16.

-Voter turnout: Polling was high in the capital Bangui, where it went ahead without incident, but it was badly affected by violence in the provinces.

The Strategic Committee for Secure Elections (CSSE), a governmental body, said it had documented at least 12 large districts, called sub-prefectures, where voting was unable to start.

The UN says there were also numerous polling stations which did open but then swiftly closed or remained empty because of voter intimidation.

“These are part-elections, they are not credible and do not meet international standards,” said Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher with the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

Nathalia Dukhan, a CAR specialist with a US NGO called The Sentry, said electoral fraud in the 2015-16 vote “was tolerated and thus legitimized” -- it was deemed the price for consolidating peace after the civil war.

“But today, it’s the entire political opposition which is condemning massive rigging,” she said. “In a post-electoral situation, (the opposition) may well provide more direct support for the coalition of armed groups in order to channel its dissatisfaction.”

-Militia pressure: A coalition of militia groups opposed to Touadera have so far been blocked from advancing on Bangui by UN forces and reinforcements flown in from Rwanda and Russia.

But by controlling swathes of the country, they retain a “nuisance power that will not go away with rigged, non-credible elections that have been legitimized by the international community,” said Dukhan.

“We are going to enter a post-electoral phase with a military escalation in both camps,” she predicted.

“Armed groups will continue to seize the wealth, especially minerals that they do not yet control, in order to force the government to negotiate with them, winning enough time for them to stage a coup.”

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