Citizens of the Central African Republic began casting ballots on Wednesday in long-delayed elections that represent the best hope of reuniting the country, one of the world’s poorest, after three years of sectarian violence that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Turnout was heavy among the 1.8 million registered voters, nearly 40 percent of the population. Stores were largely closed so that workers could cast their ballots, a process that took hours. Many lined up outside schools and other polling places well before they opened at 6 a.m., as United Nations peacekeepers from Burundi, Egypt, France, Mauritania, Pakistan and other countries, along with 40 election monitors from the African Union, kept watch. As polls prepared to close at 4 p.m., people were still waiting to vote, including older men with walking sticks and women carrying babies on their backs.
Thirty candidates are running for president in the first round of voting, and elections are also being held for Parliament. Because of technical and organizational problems, the vote had been delayed numerous times.
In a referendum on Dec. 13 and 14, which had also been delayed, voters overwhelmingly approved a new Constitution, clearing the way for the elections and raising hopes for lasting peace.
Last month, Pope Francis visited the capital, Bangui, expressing hope that the elections would “enable the country to embark serenely on a new chapter of its history.” He shocked residents by touring PK5, a volatile, largely Muslim neighborhood that is normally surrounded by armed Christian militias. In recent days, the archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and a Muslim leader, Omar Kobine Layama, have also appealed for peaceful elections.