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Interim President Faces Challenge in Central African Republic Election


The Central African Republic, CAR, coup leader turned interim president General Francois Bozize, faces 10 challengers in what many expect to be a tightly-contested election Sunday. The vote will be the first in a series of post-conflict elections in West and Central Africa this year.

Turnout is expected to be high, following what was a very lively campaign, with a strong show of support for many candidates, including Mr. Bozize.

The former rebel leader turned president had said he would not run, but then changed his mind, saying his work to wipe out years of misrule, corruption and insecurity was only the beginning.

His supporters, wearing orange bandannas and tee-shirts, rode in open trucks, as their loud caravans sloshed through the muddy streets of muggy Bangui, calling on others to vote for Mr. Bozize.

One of those convinced, Celestin, says voting Sunday, will be like going to war, and that like in war, Mr. Bozize will prevail. He believes Mr. Bozize can win a majority in the first round and avoid a run-off.

But activists for the other candidates, who organized bigger rallies than Mr. Bozize, say he will finish out of the running, if the vote is free and fair.

An unemployed man, Jose Bangalai, says only fraud will give Mr. Bozize victory. He believes his chosen candidate, Andre Kolingba, the country's military leader from 1981 to 1993, will win.

Supporters of Mr. Kolingba, mainly from the south, wear headbands made of tapioca leaves to represent the last time the Central African Republic was self-sufficient in food.

A campaign organizer for former Prime Minister Jean-Paul Ngoupande, Faustin Bambou, also likes the chances of his candidate. He campaigned for good governance.

"I think that Mr. Jean-Paul Ngoupande has a very great chance to succeed, and to come to the second time [around], because of his capacity, because of his message, which has been very appreciated by all population. So, it [he] is a man, who has worked already as prime minister in this country. I think, with all that, he can obtain and get very good luck to succeed in second time [around]," he said.

Another former prime minister, Martin Ziguele, has strong backing in the north and from the main political party of toppled elected President Ange-Felix Patasse.

Mr. Patasse, who lives in exile, has been barred from running because of a pending trial on charges of blood and financial crimes. The Charges Were Brought By Mr. Bozize. Mr. Patasse says he is innocent, and has threatened violence if the election is not fair.

Allegations of early vote rigging have ranged from fabrication of fake voting cards to military deploying in remote areas to put pressure on village chiefs to help Mr. Bozize win.

The Interior ministry released a statement saying that everything is going well, and warning any false rumors could undermine the process.

Several dozen African observers are monitoring the vote, while hundreds of French Foreign Legion troops have deployed to help with security on voting day.

There will also be voting for the country's parliament. It was disbanded following the March 2003 coup.

In addition to a return to democracy, many voters say the elections are crucial to getting their impoverished, but resource-rich, economy back in line for international aid money and investment.

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