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Congo goes to polls hoping for a good president

Sunday, October 29, 2006

By HEIDI VOGT

The Associated Press

KINSHASA, Congo -- A cement high-rise pocked by cannon fire. A candidate's helicopter pummeled into a mass of burned and twisted metal. Holes where office windows used to be.

Those are just some of the remnants of violence that erupted more than two months ago between forces loyal to the two men facing a run-off presidential vote today. The fighting erupted in late August following the first election round, which left no clear winner.

Today's race between the top two vote-getters -- the country's president and an ex-rebel leader -- climaxes a four-year transition meant to set this vast, volatile nation on the path to democratic government after more than 40 years of war and corrupt misrule.

Congo's riches were plundered by Belgian colonists and then by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. War engulfed it from 1998 to 2002 and drew in at least seven nations.

Now Congolese are ready for a fresh start. But the August fighting was a reminder that their democracy is in its infancy -- and that much depends on the loser's ability to accept defeat peacefully.

"We don't want any more dictators. We want someone who looks and sees what the people need," said Ignace Mavita, a 40-year-old housebuilder. "We want one army, and one president."

The runoff pits President Joseph Kabila against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel leader and one of four vice presidents in the power-sharing government established after a peace deal ended the war. Kabila is favored to win, having captured 45 percent of the vote in the first round compared to Bemba's 20 percent.

The United Nations' 17,600-strong peacekeeping force, the world's largest, is contributing more than $1 billion to the colossal electoral effort. Delivering and counting ballots is no easy task in a country the size of western Europe where most people live in mud huts without electricity and few roads are paved.

A first round of voting on July 30 was marked by eager patriotism, dashed for many when Kabila and Bemba's personal guards clashed in the capital as results were released. Three days of gunfights between the candidates' forces -- nominally part of the same army -- left at least 23 dead by official counts.

International observers of the first round noted a host of problems from logistical issues of ballot collection and monitoring to confusing and potentially fraudulent voter lists -- but saw nothing significant enough to affect the results and ruled them valid.

Since then, political parties have papered over bullet holes with glossy posters and held street rallies and promised peace, but they are keeping their personal guards close while the U.N. and the Congolese army put up bunkers of sandbags in Kinshasa. Kabila's red-bereted forces number about 6,000 in the capital and Bemba's party says he has around 1,500 bodyguards.

In Kinshasa, many people worry that either a surprise win by Bemba or a contested win by Kabila could lead to fighting.

Representatives of the two candidates promised Saturday that the vote would be held peacefully and urged supporters to accept the results. The pledge for calm came in a joint statement issued by Congo's independent electoral commission.

Both Bemba and Kabila already told reporters they will accept results win or lose -- as long as the vote is free and fair.

Bemba's spokesman, Moise Musangana, said previously that the vice president will be watching closely for irregularities in the runoff.

"If there isn't transparency, that gives both us the politicians and the population a reason to react," Musangana said.

Kabila's campaign portrays him as an alliance-builder for having formed a majority coalition in the parliament after winning the largest share of seats. Two other major first-round candidates have thrown their support to him.

But some question whether any candidate has the moral authority to unify the country.

Congo is still not at peace -- rebel uprisings continue in the east, which remains lawless and home to dozens of militia groups. Sparse infrastructure is crumbling from years of neglect. The size of the country, its lack of communications, and its many tribes and languages, throw into question whether any leader can claim to have national appeal.

"If Kabila does win, he's likely to win in the east and lose in Kinshasa, which will leave him ruling over a city that hasn't accepted him," said Jason Stearns, a Congo analyst at International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization.

The July vote was one of the few times Congolese moved together as a nation, and the central government could not have pulled that off without massive international help. Asserting the central government's authority will be one of the main challenges before the new president.

Even inside the capital, few Congolese have access to such basics as roads, telephones, electricity and clean water. But heavy turnout -- about 70 percent of some 25 million registered voters in the first round -- shows that even though ties between the people and central authorities may be weak now, Congolese care about getting an accountable administration.

A peaceful, democratic government could make Congo an economic engine for the region. It's rich in copper, diamonds, gold and the coltan used in cell phones, though much of that wealth has been sucked up by corrupt leaders and neighboring nations.

Joseph Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, was swept to power by Rwandan forces and Congolese rebels who marched across the country on foot and ended Mobutu's 32-year rule in 1997. Rwandan-backed rebels took up arms again a year later, setting off another war that pulled in the armies of half a dozen nations before ending in 2002.

After the elder Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001, his son took over and steered the country toward a negotiated settlement with rebel leaders, including Bemba, who were given top posts in government.

The U.N. has helped maintain a semblance of peace since then, but eventually will leave.

"We need a president who comes with a good heart, who will serve the people," said Charlotte Ka, a 24-year-old waitress.


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