Since his return to the capital, Bangui, in June, the former prime minister Jean-Paul Ngoupande has dominated the political agenda, eclipsing the activities of other opposition leaders. For the moment, however, his political strength is debatable. If he is to emerge as a serious challenger to the incumbent, Ange-Felix Patasse, in next year's presidential election, Mr Ngoupande will need a national political base. While he clearly enjoys significant support in Bangui itself -- as demonstrated by the enthusiastic welcome he received on his return from France -- this will probably not be enough in itself to provide a launch pad for a serious bid for the presidency.
-- as there are questions over the president's health --
However, it is President Patasse who remains the great unknown as far as next year's poll is concerned. There have been suggestions that he is seriously ill, and, if he decides not to run, the election race would be thrown wide open. The existing opposition parties are widely regarded as ineffectual and inspire little loyalty, while the ruling party, the Mouvement pour la liberation du peuple centrafricaine (MPLC), may struggle to agree on a candidate, possibly prompting debilitating factionalism in the run-up to the polls. The next legislative election, meanwhile, which was originally scheduled for August but has been delayed until November- December because of administrative problems, is likely to provide some indication of current party political strengths. This is unlikely to have much bearing on the presidential contest, however, as far more is at stake. The most revealing aspect of the legislative election will therefore be not so much the result as the manner in which the process is conducted, and in particular the performance of the electoral commission and the ability of the UN mission in the CAR to preserve the peace.
-- but policy will play only a small part
Mr Ngoupande established good credentials as a reformist during his brief period in government and is likely to prove more inspirational than veteran rivals such as Abel Gounba. By contrast, Mr Patasse has been a reluctant convert to structural adjustment. Nevertheless, all parties are likely to remain committed to an IMF programme, without which the prospects for growth would be profoundly compromised.