KIGALI, Rwanda 

Despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, voters in Burundi headed to the polls on Wednesday to choose a replacement for President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has ruled the country for 15 years.

In the country of 11 million, more than five million people are expected to vote for a new president and a parliament, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission.

A total of 14,718 polling stations have been set up across the landlocked East African country, with voting starting at 6:00 a.m. local time (0400GMT) and due to end at 4:00 p.m. (1400GMT).

Seven candidates are vying to replace President Nkurunziza, but analysts see two of them as the top contenders.

They are Evariste Ndayishimiy, the candidate for the ruling CNDD-FDD party, and the main opposition National Congress for Liberty’s (CNL) nominee Agathon Rwasa.

The candidates have campaigned on a pledge to fix the economy, create jobs, and unify the country.

Ndayishimiye, a retired general, was part of the rebel movement with Nkurunziza during the civil war from 1993-2005 that killed roughly 300,000 people.

Rwasa, the former leader of another rebel group, is the current deputy speaker of Parliament and has lost in two previous presidential elections.

The election campaign, which started on April 27 and ended on Sunday, was marred by sporadic violence between supporters of the ruling party and CNL.

Ahead of the vote, both parties appealed for peace and encouraged supporters to ensure a strong turnout.

Another potential threat is the increased transmission of coronavirus in the country, which has recorded just 42 cases and one fatality so far.

Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, the minister of public security, warned voters against overcrowding polling stations, saying they would be breaching electoral laws.

Burundi has been in the throes of a political crisis since 2015, when Nkurunziza sought a controversial third term in office.

More than 330,000 Burundians fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and DR Congo to escape violence, according to the UN.

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