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When an election is not just about who governs

After a violent civil conflict between Christians and Muslims, the Central African Republic voted peacefully for a new government. The mere act of casting a vote sent a message of support for equality, and with it a desire to return to social harmony.

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Central African Republic refugees arrive at a polling station in Cameroon to vote in a Dec. 30 election for new leaders in their home country.

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In stable democracies, elections are mainly seen as contests over power and ideas. In the Central African Republic, however, a Dec. 30 election was much more. After three years of near-genocidal violence between Christians and Muslims, people eagerly lined up to vote for a new president and parliament. The main motivation was to restore social harmony. Nearly a quarter of the CAR’s population remains displaced by a conflict in which more than 6,000 have been killed.

Casting ballots together as fellow citizens helped send a healing message of support for equality.

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Much more than an election, of course, will be needed to patch the CAR back together. Armed militias must still be disarmed. More than 400,000 refugees in neighboring countries will need to know they can return home safely. And newly elected leaders must break old patterns of kleptocratic governance.

Yet the ground has been laid for reconciliation. Christian and Muslim leaders formed a close partnership to bridge sectarian divides. The United Nations and France placed more than 11,000 troops in the country to keep the peace. And last April, many citizen activists and contending groups met in a forum to define a new future – and new character – for the country of 4.8 million people. To top it off, a visit by Pope Francis helped reduce the fear of renewed violence.

Since gaining independence in 1960, the CAR has been prone to the same challenges as many African nations: local warlords, coups, autocratic rule, struggles over mineral resources, and religious tensions. An election is not a cure-all, especially in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The CAR is one of the world’s poorest nations. But with the help of an interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, the international community insisted on elections and a special criminal court to lay down the core principles of democracy. By highlighting the values of citizenship, a secular identity based on equality may help overcome differences of tribe and faith.

“It is time our country comes out of this long crisis, recovers its institutions, and that Central Africans find reconciliation and live together,” one 26-year-old voter told The Associated Press.

For all its torturous history, the CAR might serve as a model for other African countries struggling with Christian-Muslim divides or autocratic rule. A pillar of that model is the freedom for self-governance, made visible when every citizen can drop a ballot in a box.