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Fears usurp optimism in Congo vote

Violence ahead of the presidential runoff sparks the question: Will the loser abide by the results peacefully?

October 29, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KINSHASA, CONGO — Anxious Congolese returned 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 giant largely overshadowed the hope and optimism many had expressed during the first round of voting.

Millions were expected to line up at 50,000 polling stations nationwide, just as they did July 30 for the first round; however, officials worried that heavy thunderstorms this morning in Kinshasa, the capital, could affect turnout. The initial round had ended without any of 33 presidential contenders garnering the required 50% of ballots.

In today's runoff, voters faced two choices: transitional President Joseph Kabila, the son of assassinated President 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 for three days, killing at least two dozen people in Kinshasa. Ever since, the capital has remained on edge, worried the election's loser will resort to violence and plunge the country back into civil war.

"If they are really democrats, as they pretend to be, they should accept the results," said Heritier Lionga, an economics student at Protestant University of Congo. "But I'm not optimistic. Everyone is afraid. We hope whatever happens won't last for a long time."

As election day approached, United Nations tanks and armored personnel carriers took up position in front of the Independent Election Commission, media outlets and the candidates' campaign headquarters. About 2,500 U.N. troops, some working behind sandbag positions, are providing security along with 1,700 European Union soldiers. Military helicopters occasionally buzzed overhead.

Independent as of 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 about 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 most populous and resource-rich -- but also 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 remained optimistic despite the fact that he was among several diplomats briefly ensnared in the fighting in August. The clashes rocked an upscale riverfront neighborhood where Kabila, Bemba and many international diplomats live, leaving stray bullet holes in some of the elegant mansions and turning Bemba's personal helicopter into a pile of melted metal and ash. "That was an ugly period," Meece said.

Reissued assurances

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% of the vote in July, with strong support in the eastern part of the country. He recently forged coalitions with other top vote-getters, including a son of Mobutu and an ex-premier who ranked third in the first round.

Kabila declined to be interviewed last week, but he told the BBC that he would "without question" accept the poll's results. Some diplomats blame him for instigating the August standoff by dispatching some of his estimated 5,000 presidential guard soldiers to surround the election commission offices when the results were scheduled to be released.

Bemba, who received 20% of the vote in the first round and remains popular in Kinshasa and much of the west, has been working hard to replace his tough-guy image with a more "presidential" look, shunning traditional Congolese shirts in favor of dark suits and red power ties.

"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 away from confrontation, if provoked. "In a democracy, tanks and troops have no place in the streets," he said. But "I will defend myself."

Experts say the outcome could be close, despite Kabila's strong first-round lead. Bemba won endorsements from another strong first-round contender, Oscar Kashala, a Harvardeducated cancer doctor who returned to Congo last year and generated enthusiasm among students and intellectuals.

Although veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi has refused to endorse either candidate, many of his supporters are backing Bemba.

'Framework for the future'

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