DRC makes a new beginning

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) held its first multiparty election in more than four decades on Sunday, a colossal democratic exercise many hope will secure an end to years of fighting and corrupt rule that have devastated this gigantic, mineral-rich nation in the heart of Africa.

The DRC’s young President, Joseph Kabila, is the front-runner in a field of 33 hopefuls that includes ex-rebel leaders he once fought against who carved the nation into rival fiefdoms. He became president—and rebel leaders became vice-presidents—three years ago in an appointed transitional government formed as part of a peace deal.

“Today is a chance to make a new beginning and to draw the line at all the war we have seen,” 44-year-old engineer Jean-Pierre Shamba said after casting his ballot at a secondary school in the eastern town of Bunia guarded by a dozen blue-helmeted Moroccan peacekeepers.

Polling stations opened late in several cities, including Bunia, the central diamond city of Mbuji-Mayi, and the capital, Kinshasa, where voters wore sweaters and shawls against a damp, pre-dawn cool.

By midday, there were no reports of serious violence though United Nations spokesperson Jean-Tobias Okala said 11 voting stations were burned down by people opposed to the vote in the provinces of East and West Kasai, strongholds of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, who is boycotting the poll.

“This is an historic day for us.
We’ve only had coups d’état and dictators in this country: phantom governments,” said Emmanuel Kiye, a 48-year-old mechanic voting for the first time in his life. “Now we’ll have a government of the people. I thank God.”

Kabila

Surrounded by a dozen bodyguards and wearing a blue, pin-striped suit, Kabila cast his ballot at a ramshackle colonial-era school with broken windows. “We’re looking forward to a future of peace,” Kabila told a mob of shouting reporters in Kinshasa. “We want to consolidate peace and stability in the country. I want victory for the Congolese people.”

Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of Kabila’s main challengers, said he was “very confident and satisfied” with the poll so far. “I’m waiting for the people of Congo to turn the page.”

The presidential ballots are huge: six newspaper-broadsheet-sized pages filled with dozens of candidates’ faces, names and party symbols, to help Congolese who can’t read select their preferred candidate.

More than 9 000 candidates are also running for 500 legislative seats. About 25-million of Congo’s 58-million people are registered to vote.

The $500-million UN-supported enterprise is the world body’s biggest to date, safeguarded by 17 600 UN troops, the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world. The European Union sent a 1 000-strong contingent to the DRC to help secure the vote, and another 1 000 European troops are on standby in nearby Gabon.

On Sunday, police at polling stations checked voters for weapons.

Before the poll, dozens died in election-related violence. One parliamentary candidate fled the country because of shootings. A truck carrying voting materials was burned.

The DRC is recovering from back-to-back wars that lasted from 1996 to 2002. Sporadic fighting has continued between government forces and militias in the east, where aid groups say about 1 000 people are dying every day from hunger and disease.

Tshisekedi is boycotting the vote and urging his followers to do the same. His call appeared to be heard in his stronghold of Mbuji-Mayi, where there were more electoral officials and observers than voters at many polling stations. Crowds of youths hovered around some deserted polling booths as riot police patrolled the tense city.

Poll

A face-to-face poll of likely voters conducted in the capital on Friday and Saturday showed 20% were still undecided—or were reluctant to name their candidate amid the tensions fanned by the campaign.

Of those who expressed a preference, 24% said they would vote for Dr Oscar Kashala, a Harvard-educated cancer researcher and political novice who left Cambridge, Massachusetts, to run for president in his homeland; 17% for Bemba; and 15% for Kabila. The rest were split among the other candidates.

Francesca Bomboko, whose Kinshasa-based agency conducted the poll, said Kashala may have picked up support from backers of Tshisekedi—both men are from the central DRC. She said the margin of error was plus or minus two percentage points.

Kashala said in an interview on Sunday he was getting encouraging reports from Kinshasa and Mbuji-Mayi. While critics had said he was handicapped by long years outside the DRC, Kashala said Sunday it was an advantage not to have been linked to the wars of corruption of the past.

Despite mineral wealth, the DRC has remained poor, with whole villages in the country’s remote interior virtually cut off from the outside world and lawless chunks of the east still prone to militia attacks.

Many believe it will be tough to do away with entrenched graft.

“I have little hope that anything will change,” said 56-year-old teacher Emmanuel Mukadi, who said he was voting for a president for the first time in his life. “It doesn’t matter who wins.”

The DRC descended into conflict almost immediately after it shook off Belgian colonialism in 1960. Decades of civil wars and coups d’état followed, with the late United States-backed Mobutu Sese Seko at the helm for 32 years. One of Mobutu’s sons, Nzanga, was among those running on Sunday.

A Rwandan-backed rebellion by Kabila’s father, Laurent, forced Mobutu from power in 1997 but a fresh insurgency led by Rwanda the following year divided the country.

Joseph Kabila took power after his father was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001 and negotiated an official end to the war a year later, establishing a transitional government.

If no presidential candidate gains a majority, a run-off between the top two will be held, probably in September.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporters Michelle Faul in Mbuji-Mayi and Anjan Sundaram in Bunia contributed to this report

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