Ballot count underway in landmark Central African Republic election

As ballot counting got underway in the Central African Republic, voters and the international community await the results of the landmark election, seen as a key step towards stability after years of deadly violence.

Central Africans waited in long lines at polling stations throughout the country Wednesday to elect their next president and members of the National Assembly, as international peacekeepers stood out in force to prevent possible tensions.

“Today was really the pinnacle of the commitment of the people of this country, a country faced with so many challenges,” said Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, head of the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic.

Voting was peaceful

The massive turnout shows “the will of the people to say once and for all we want to change our country by the ballot box, not by the barrel,” Onanga-Anyanga told the media.

Nearly two million people registered to vote in the election, initially scheduled to take place on December 27, but delayed because more time was needed for the distribution of ballots and the training of electoral agents, the United Nations said.

Voting remained peaceful throughout the day, even though some logistical issues were reported.

At least two people were killed and a dozen injured two weeks earlier in violence during the referendum on the new constitution, which voters overwhelmingly approved.

Of the 30 candidates running for the presidency, the top contenders are considered to be former prime ministers Martin Ziguele and Anicet-Georges Dologuélé and independent candidate Karim Meckassoua. Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, who has served since 2014, cannot participate in the election.

A ‘daunting task’

The National Election Authority will announce the preliminary results in the coming days. They have to be confirmed by the country’s Constitutional Court to become official. If a single candidate doesn’t win majority, given the large number of contenders, a second round of voting is likely to take place on January 31.

“Whoever wins will have the daunting task to try to change the equation in the country,” said Onanga-Anyanga. “Overwhelmingly what people are saying is, they want the new leadership to govern them better; they want a government that will be able to reconcile them.”

In 2013, mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power from the government of former President Francois Bozize, fueling reprisals from Christian anti-balaka militias.

Pope Francis, who visited the country in November, called for Christians and Muslims to end the atrocities and live in peace.

Close to one million people have been displaced in the brutal violence and more than half of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.