Congo heads to polls today

The Baltimore Sun

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo -- Anxious Congolese were to return to the polls this morning to complete the first democratic presidential election in more than 40 years. But fears of renewed violence in this Central African country largely overshadowed the hope and optimism many people expressed during the first round of voting.

Thousands began lining up at 50,000 polling stations nationwide early today, just as they did July 30 for the first round, which ended without any of 33 presidential contenders garnering the required 50 percent of ballots.

In today's runoff, voters face two choices: transitional President Joseph Kabila, the son of assassinated rebel leader Laurent Kabila, and his archenemy, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a businessman-turned-militia leader who serves as a vice president.

In August, the men's private security forces fought each other for three days, killing at least two dozen people in Kinshasa. The capital has remained on edge out of concern that the loser of the election will resort to violence and plunge the country back into civil war.

As Election Day approached, United Nations tanks and armored personnel carriers took up position in front of the Independent Election Commission, news media outlets and the candidates' campaign headquarters. An estimated 2,500 U.N. troops are providing security, along with 1,700 European Union soldiers. Military helicopters occasionally buzzed overhead.

Since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, endured decades of dictatorship and kleptocracy under strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, followed by four years of civil and regional war that killed an estimated 4 million people, mostly from disease and hunger. A transitional government was installed in 2003.

International experts say the election could help stabilize one of Africa's largest, wealthiest and most traumatized nations.

"The transition represents the best possibility that has existed for many years, possibly ever, to get things going right in this very big and very important country," U.S. Ambassador Roger Meece said in an interview.

Meece said he remains optimistic even though he was among several international diplomats who were briefly ensnared in the fighting in August. The clashes rocked an upscale riverfront neighborhood that serves as home to Kabila, Bemba and many international diplomats, leaving stray bullet holes in some of the elegant mansions.

Since then, a flurry of internationally supervised commissions and peace agreements have worked to ensure that the candidates will accept the will of the voters. So far, both have pledged to shun violence and keep their fighters off the streets, although the men made similar promises during the first round.

The media-shy Kabila, 35, who backed down last week from the only scheduled debate, is considered the front-runner. He won 45 percent of the vote in July.

Kabila declined to be interviewed last week, but he told the BBC that he would "without question" accept the poll's results.

Bemba, who received 20 percent of the vote in the first round, remains popular in Kinshasa and much of the West.

"I'm a democrat," he said last week. "In a democracy, winning and losing is a result of the will of the people."

But he insisted he would not shy from confrontation, if provoked. "In a democracy, tanks and troops have no place in the streets," he said. But "I will defend myself."

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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