The Republic of Congo is preparing to hold presidential elections for the first time in a decade that has been marked by civil wars. On Sunday, President Sassou-Nguesso, who took power in a 1997 military coup, will face seven candidates in the first round of elections.

The elections are meant to be the next step in the process of returning democratic rule to the Republic of Congo.

The race will pit President Sassou-Nguesso against a list of seven candidates. They do not include the two men considered to be Mr. Sassou-Nguesso's top political rivals.

The men, former President Pascal Lissouba and former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas, remain in exile. Both were excluded from running in these elections after Congolese courts condemned them in absentia.

Mr. Lissouba was sentenced last December to 30 years of hard labor for high treason. A court condemned Mr. Kolelas to death two years ago for torture and kidnapping.

Two other candidates, Martin Mberi and Anselme Mackoumbou-Nkouka, dropped out of the race on Tuesday, citing what they said was a lack of transparency in the electoral process.

Sassou-Nguesso first came to power as a general following a military coup in 1979. He ruled the country under Marxist-Leninist principles during most of his 12 years in power. In 1992, two years after allowing the introduction of a multi-party system, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso lost presidential elections to Pascal Lissouba.

Allegations of voter fraud in the 1993 legislative elections sparked bloody battles that escalated to what witnesses say was the worst ethnic fighting in the country's history.

Mr. Sassou-Nguesso returned to power in 1997, when his forces - supported by Angola - ousted President Lissouba. Fighting that followed killed thousands in the capital, Brazzaville, as factions attacked each other in fierce battles that involved the use of heavy weapons and helicopter gunships. Fighting among factions erupted once again in 1998 and continued through 1999.

The Republic of Congo is still reeling from the effects of three civil wars that left, officially, 15,000 people dead.

Cease-fire accords signed at the end of 1999 returned peace to the country as members of the main armed factions handed over their weapons.

It is the return of peace that General Sassou-Nguesso has capitalized on in his campaign.

Much of Brazzaville remains in ruins today. While many Congolese say they are grateful to have peace, there has been growing discontent over living conditions that have failed to improve.

Corruption has been a central issue in the campaign.

The Republic of Congo is Africa's third largest producer of oil, after Nigeria and Angola. The country has frequently come under criticism by the International Monetary Fund for corruption and a lack of transparency in its use of oil revenues.

The World Bank says that per capita, Congo is one of the most indebted nations in the world.

The elections Sunday are being held under the terms of a new constitution approved by voters in a referendum in January. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition, who argued the new constitution grants too much power to the president. Under the new law, the president can serve a maximum of two, seven-year terms.

The second round of presidential elections is scheduled for April 7.