Millions Go to the Polls in Congo

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006

KINSHASA, Congo, July 30 -- Voters eager for peace but fearing new violence trekked to nearly 50,000 polling stations across this sprawling country Sunday to cast ballots for Congo's first democratically elected government since the dawn of independence 46 years ago.

All but the oldest voters for the first time perused a list of candidates and marked their choice. By the end of the day, millions of Congolese had purple thumbs from the indelible ink that indicated they had voted.

Results are days or perhaps weeks away, but initial reports suggested that turnout was heavy. Voters often waited for hours at polling stations throughout a country that stretches across central Africa, from the Atlantic coast to the eastern Great Lakes region.

"What we want is peace," said Marie Diamoneka, a voter standing outside a Kinshasa polling station with her 2-year-old granddaughter tied to her back.

Polls in some places opened late, but the day passed with few serious incidents amid the heavy presence of U.N. troops and Congolese police. Dozens of people were killed in campaign-related violence ahead of the vote, including three police officers and one civilian outside an opposition rally Thursday.

The greatest test of Congo's fragile order likely will come when results are announced. The country has experienced two major wars in the past decade that drew in many of its neighbors and left an estimated 4 million people dead, mostly civilians killed by hunger and easily preventable diseases.

Hostility toward President Joseph Kabila, regarded by many outside analysts as the front-runner, runs high in Kinshasa, the dense and unruly capital. Kabila made few public appearances here during the campaign. His father, Laurent Kabila, took power in a bloody rebellion backed by neighboring Rwanda in 1997 and ruled ruthlessly until his assassination in 2001. His son assumed the presidency immediately afterward.

In the years since, the government has provided little to ordinary Congolese, who complain about dramatic shortages of jobs, security, schools, roads, health care, electricity and drinking water despite the country's vast mineral wealth. The International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Brussels, called Kabila's government "largely predatory."

Many opposition supporters have already contended that the election was rigged and threatened to riot if Kabila is named the winner.

Some of the most vocal are those backing Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel leader and one of four vice presidents, who enjoys broad, passionate support in Kinshasa. Many of his supporters say they are confident of his victory and would find it impossible to accept another outcome -- especially if the official winner is Kabila.

"Even I will ask Bemba to give us arms," said Joseph Kika, 27, an election observer for another candidate, who was sipping a bottle of beer at a suburban polling place.

A Bemba supporter sitting nearby, Stanis Kifuani, 29, added, "That will be the last war."

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