Candidates vying for the presidency of the Central African Republic have begun campaigning in the final run-up to the much anticipated presidential election later this month. Many Central Africans hope the poll will put an end to nearly a decade of political instability. 

The list of 11 candidates participating in the elections reads like a who's who of Central African politics. There is an ex-president, the sitting vice president, a host of current and former high-ranking government ministers, and the incumbent President Francois Bozize.

Several of the contenders have returned from exile to participate. Thousands of supporters turned out at the airport in the capital Bangui when former ruler, Andre Kolingba, arrived Saturday. With so many political heavyweights in the running, journalist Ferdinand Samba predicts a tight race. He says it will be difficult for any of the candidates to secure the 51 percent of the vote needed to claim outright victory. A second round, he says, will likely be needed to chose the eventual winner. Voters are scheduled to go to the polls March 13, almost exactly two years after General Bozize overthrew his predecessor, Ange-Felix Patasse.

Mr. Bozize, a former head of the army, stayed on as president promising to lead the country through a period of transition ending in democratic elections. But the vote, which will also elect members to parliament, was delayed twice.

The constitutional court excluded seven of the leading candidates on technicalities in December and it took a round of mediation in Gabon in January for them to be reinstated. Mr. Patasse, currently in exile in Togo, remains ineligible due to an ongoing trial against him in the Central African Republic.

A cycle of army mutinies and coups beginning in 1996 left the Central African Republic increasingly unstable. A resulting civil war only ended in 2003 with Mr. Patasse's ouster. A spokesman for the grouping of French-speaking countries, known as the IOC, Hugo Sada, says the Central African Republic is at a crucial stage on its road to democratic governance. The IOC has been providing technical support on organizing the poll. It will serve as an outside monitor for the election.

Africa analyst Richard Reeve remains pessimistic that the vote next week will live up to the expectations shared by many in the country that it will usher in a new period of stability and democracy.

"The CAR really does not exist as a state much beyond Bangui," he said. "The problems of organizing an election in a country that sparsely populated, and that poorly administered are enormous. I really do not know how they are going to be able to organize anything like a transparent election beyond the capital and perhaps a few other large towns in the northwest of the country."

Voters will also be voting for candidates to fill the new 105-seat national assembly. A second round of polling is planned in the weeks following the election if no single candidate wins a majority in the presidential race.