By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 31, 2006; A12
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."
Doubts that the election would be fair caused some voters to stay away from polling places Sunday. Turnout was low in the central diamond-mining city of Mbuji-Mayi, a stronghold of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who urged a boycott on grounds the vote would be rigged. Two polling stations there were burned.
In Kinshasa, a gang of angry-looking young men gathered near Tshisekedi's house, threatening violence.
"This election is tricky," shouted Gaby Tambatamba, 26, to a passing reporter. "We'll put fire on the country."
Tambatamba said he could not accept a continuation of Kabila's rule because he is not truly Congolese. Persistent rumors about Kabila's parentage -- many opposition supporters say his mother was Rwandan and his father was not Laurent Kabila but a man from Tanzania -- have undermined his popularity at a time of surging nationalism.
Many voters also complain that Kabila is supported by the United States and European powers, which together have largely paid for the 17,600 U.N. troops in Congo, the largest peacekeeping force in the world.
More than 25 million Congolese out of an estimated population of 60 million registered to vote in the election for a new president and national parliament. If none of the 32 presidential candidates receives more than half of the votes, the two top finishers will face each other in a runoff, likely in October.
The last multiparty election was in 1960, shortly after Belgium ended decades of brutal colonial rule. Another election season began in 1965 but was interrupted by a coup led by Mobutu Sese Seko, who kept power for 32 years.
In Kinshasa, Regine Mambu, 53, a YWCA election observer who voted in an upscale neighborhood, credited Joseph Kabila with bringing much-needed stability. He signed a 2002 peace deal, and though fighting continued, especially in Congo's heavily populated and lawless east, the country is more stable than it has been at any time since Mobutu's rule.
"We are getting on the train, and we are going forward toward development and toward making order in the country," Mambu said. "If you have peace, you have security, you can do anything."
On Sunday, Mambu and other voters expressed joy at having played a role in the historic day. And she played down the possibility of unrest when results are announced.
"There are many people who want to have peace," she said.
Others were more concerned.
"We have a population that is not well-educated for these kind of events," said Jean Jacques Kabonzo, 45, a literature professor at the University of Kinshasa. "It is the first time, and we don't know how the population will react."
Jean de Paul Mabundu, 43, an engineer, said he had a pretty good idea. If Kabila is named the winner, Mabundu said, riots will erupt in Kinshasa.
Mabundu added with a smile, "If you want to eat an omelet, you must break some eggs."