Election campaigns begin, ex-military candidates dominate

Electoral campaigns began on Saturday nationwide in the Central African Republic (CAR), with the majority of posters and banners appearing in the streets of the capital, Bangui, belonging to CAR leader Francois Bozize.

"It's already clear who is going to be the next president," an international official based in Bangui, who requested anonymity, said.

He was speaking in reference to the posters and banners in bright orange, the colour associated with the campaign to elect Bozize.

However, by Sunday, former military leader Andre Kolingba returned home from exile in France to a tumultuous welcome. Thousands of supporters lined the route to the airport waving clumps of cassava leaves, the symbol of his Rassemblement democratique centrafricain party.

Observers say Kolingba has a better chance of unseating Bozize than any other candidate.

Presidential and legislative elections, which are scheduled for 13 March, follow decades of political instability and violence.

Bozize, a former army general, seized power from President Ange-Felix Patasse in March 2003 after leading a six-month armed rebellion, mostly in the northwest of the country.

All the 11 presidential candidates have messages of peace and say they can best bring an end to the political instability and violence that has rocked the country since it gained independence from France in 1960.

However, political parties are largely divided along ethnic and regional lines.

"Behind all politics here you can always find an ethnic dimension," Lamine Cisse, the head UN Peace-Building Support Office in CAR, known as BONUCA, told IRIN last week.

Most presidential candidates signed a code of good conduct in February, agreeing not to intimidate, attack or slander each other. Still, observers say many of the candidates may not dare to campaign in areas in which they have no support.

"Political violence could still break out," Cisse said. "I'm worried that the candidates could hire bandits and armed groups to intimidate each other."

Crowds of Bozize's supporters swarmed Bangui on Sunday in their orange T-shirts and clothes, printed with Bozize's image. He drove through neighbourhoods of Bangui escorted by a convoy of heavily armed soldiers and jeeps mounted with canons.

Before the campaign officially started, only Bozize's supporters dared violate the electoral code and mount campaign posters and banners on public monuments and government buildings in Bangui and the provincial town of Bossangoa, his northern stronghold. Yet by Sunday, posters of other candidates were also seen on at least one monument in the centre of Bangui.

Bozize's administration has run out of money to pay salaries, diplomats in Bangui say. Donors are now only willing to provide further aid to a democratically elected government.

Initially, the election was set for January, but was delayed because of organisational difficulties. Some rural areas of the CAR are still not fully under Bozize's control, with armed groups frequently attacking villages and passing vehicles.

"The voting will go ahead as planned," Jean Willibiro-Sacko, the head of the independent election commission, told IRIN on Saturday.

Almost 1,000 candidates are contesting the 105-seat National Assembly.

The constitutional court in Bangui disqualified Patasse from running for the presidency on the grounds that he is facing criminal investigations. However, Patasse's party, the Mouvement de liberation du peuple Centrafricain, is supporting Patasse's former prime minister, Martin Ziguele, who had been in exile in France.

Ziguele, one of the three leading candidates, arrived on Sunday on the same flight as Kolingba. The other candidates are another former prime minister, Jean-Paul Ngoupande, of the Parti de l'Unite nationale; Josue Binoua, an independent; Olivier Gabirault of the Alliance pour la democratie et le progres; Charles Massi, of the Forum pour la democratie et la modernite; former Defense Minister Jean-Jaques Demafouth, an independent; Auguste Boukanga, of Union pour le renouveau et la democratie; Henri Pouzerre, another independent; and current vice-president Abel Goumba, of Front patriotique pour le progres.

Bozize is running as an independent candidate supported by a coalition of political parties and businessmen known as Convergence Kwa Na Kwa, meaning, 'Work, only work'.