31 July 2006

Congo-Kinshasa: A Three-Week Countdown

Bunia, Eastern DRC — Vote counting is underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which held landmark general elections Sunday.

However, preliminary results are only expected in about three weeks, given the enormity of this Central African country and the poor state of its transport and communications networks -- a legacy of decades of bad governance. The United Nations oversaw Africa's largest air operation to distribute ballot boxes, across Congo; some 50,000 polling stations had to be supplied with voting materials.

"It has been a big challenge to conduct elections," said Flavien Misoni, chief of operations at Congo's Independent Electoral Commission (Commission Electorale Independente).

The 25 million citizens who were eligible to vote may even face a second round of polling Oct. 29 if none of the presidential candidates garners more than 50 percent of ballots. In this instance, a run-off election would be held between the two contenders with the most votes, with final results expected in November.

Thirty-three people contested the presidency, and more than 9,700 the parliamentary elections, meant to fill 500 legislative seats. Multi-page ballot sheets were required to accommodate the names and photographs of this vast array of candidates.

Turnout for the vote was reported to be strong, while fears that it would be marred by violence proved largely unjustified.

Eleven polling stations were set alight in a central region viewed as the stronghold of veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi -- who boycotted the vote. This reportedly prompted electoral officials to re-open a number of polling stations in the city of Mbuji-Mayi, Monday, to give citizens another chance to cast ballots.

However, voting was peaceful overall -- no small achievement in a country struggling to emerge from two civil wars fought between 1996 and 2002, decades of corruption, and harsh colonial rule which ended in 1960. Sunday's poll marked the first multi-party election to take place in the DRC in more than 40 years.

"The vote has been a success. The Congolese have worked hard to achieve this," said Ali Diabacté, chief of the U.N's electoral division in Congo.

The U.N. has deployed what is currently the world's largest peacekeeping force in the DRC: about 17,500 troops which helped maintain order during the poll, and which have been disarming combatants in eastern Congo -- scene of the country's civil conflict.

About 400 million dollars in donor funding were provided to finance the vote. But, however complex or expensive the business of staging the elections, still greater challenges may lie ahead.

Incumbent President Joseph Kabila is seen as the frontrunner in the presidential poll, although he faces competition from a former rebel leader, now vice-president, Jean-Pierra Bemba. Another ex-rebel who took on a vice-presidential post after the 1998-2002 civil war, Azaria Ruberwa, is also in the running for the presidency.

Reports indicate that the two former rebels are already expressing unease over the weekend vote, saying they will dismiss an outcome seen as unjust.

In addition, while the five-year conflict that pitted Ugandan- and Rwandan-backed rebels against government may have officially ended, thousands of militants are still at large -- and inflicting violence and lawlessness on swathes of territory in the east.

The fear is that this mayhem will continue in the aftermath of elections, undermining whichever government comes to power. Given that the disorder in eastern Congo has enabled illicit exploitation of the country's vast natural resources by factions across the board, there are many who have little interest in seeing the rule of law introduced in this part of the country.

A Jul. 28 statement by the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted its concern over renegade army general Laurent Nkunda's threat to take action if minority groups were not included in the new administration.

Nkunda already stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. When he attacked an army base in the North Kivu province in January, over 1500 government troops chose to join his forces rather than fight them -- an unwelcome reminder of the fragile loyalties of some in the national army.

Another of the major tasks facing the incoming government will be instilling discipline into government forces, largely composed of militiamen who were paid to disarm and retrained for national service. At present, poorly-paid soldiers often loot the very communities they are meant to protect.

Still, many of the Congolese interviewed for this article were hopeful that Sunday's vote would usher in an era of peace after prolonged conflict, and the death of some four million people over recent years through fighting, and the disease and hunger unleashed by war.

"Slowly, Congo will rebuild itself and heal from all the fighting," said Florence Tambwe, who sells telephone cards in Bunia. "After this vote, our people will have a chance to make things better. We have to take the opportunity."

Clarice Kahekwa, a mother of three, voiced similar sentiments.

"We all hope the vote will bring peace after so many years of war If our new government is responsible to its people, our votes will have made a difference."

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