ELECTIONS-DRC: “An Opportunity for Congo’s Ordinary People to Express Themselves”

Eva Weymuller

KINSHASA, Jul 29 2006 (IPS) - When voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) go to the polls Sunday, they will be participating in a general election for which the words “epic” and “historic” seem scarcely to do justice.

When voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) go to the polls Sunday, they will be participating in a general election for which the words “epic” and “historic” seem scarcely to do justice.

It is the first multi-party vote to take place for more than 40 years in a country variously described as two-thirds the size of Western Europe, or as big as the eastern United States.

More than 25 million voters (out of a 60-million strong population) will queue outside some 50,000 polling stations, to choose from 33 presidential candidates – and just over 9,700 parliamentary candidates who are vying for 500 legislative seats. This is to take place under the watchful eye of the world’s largest peace-keeping mission, composed of about 17,500 United Nations troops, and several thousand local and international election observers.

Upwards of 400 million dollars have been provided by donors to finance the vote.

The hope is that Sunday’s poll will enable the DRC to make a decisive break with a past which saw brutal colonial rule by Belgium until 1960, and corruption on a grand scale under former president Mobutu Sese Seko.

Some four million people subsequently lost their lives in the course of a five-year war waged between Mobutu’s successor, Laurent Kabila, and rebels backed by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Control of the DRC’s extensive natural resources – the country’s blessing and bane – lay at the heart of this conflict.

Even the size of the ballot paper is epic: with so many candidates contesting the poll, it reportedly runs to eight pages. Ballot sheets have been transported to polling stations despite great logistical challenges: decades of poor governance have taken a ruinous toll on the DRC’s infrastructure, and the country now has only a few hundred kilometres of tarred roads.

Incumbent head of state Joseph Kabila is favoured to win the presidential election, although his support appears to be principally in the east. The son of Laurent Kabila, he took power in the DRC after his father was assassinated in 2001, and for the past three years has governed at the head of an interim administration established after peace talks that ended the 1998-2002 war.

National television has aired the 35-year-old Kabila’s campaign to the far corners of the DRC without according other candidates the same intensity of coverage – this in contravention of electoral guidelines set up by the Southern African Development Community, of which Congo is a member.

“We have denounced Kabila’s access to state television…It is a problem,” said an official from the High Authority of the Media (Haute Authorité de Media, HAM), on condition of anonymity.

International observers have also voiced concern on this matter.

“We have been monitoring television channels and there is a strong bias towards Kabila,” said Eric Des Pallieres, deputy chief of the European Union’s election observer mission in Congo. “We clearly denounce this.”

Kabila leads the Alliance for the Presidential Majority (Alliance pour la majorité présidentielle), a coalition of 30 parties, but is contesting the presidency as an independent candidate.

Ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who disarmed after the war in exchange for one of four vice-presidential posts, and Pierre Pay Pay – a former cabinet minister – are amongst his strongest challengers.

Bemba, 44, heads the Congolese Liberation Movement (Mouvement de Libération du Congo, MLC, formerly backed by Uganda), and is contesting the presidency on an MLC ticket. The son of a prominent businessman who reportedly made a fortune from coffee plantations, he is popular in the north-western Equator province. But in other parts of the DRC, memories of his alleged actions during the civil war make Bemba anathema.

“Bemba caused too many massacres during Congo’s war. He did not work for peace like Kabila,” says Nana Makaya, a 29-year-old mother of three in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

Even if he succeeds at the poll, Bemba’s past may return to haunt him. The Central African Republic (CAR) has referred war crimes allegations against him to the International Criminal Court; Bemba stands accused of carrying out atrocities in the CAR in 2002 after then president Ange-Felix Patassé asked for his assistance in defeating a coup.

The articulate Pierre Pay Pay, 60, has united over 26 political parties in key ethnic electorates across Congo. He heads the Coalition of Congolese Democrats (Coalition des démocrates congolais), which he will represent in the election.

However, his campaign has suffered from his association with Mobutu – under whom he served in various cabinet posts. Pay Pay has also been governor of the central bank, head of state-owned copper mining enterprise Gecamines – and is said to have made a fortune during Mobutu’s nationalisation of foreign-owned businesses.

Pay Pay vows to rebuild the economy by promoting foreign and private ownership of inefficient public enterprises. For their part, Kabila and Bemba promise peace and the rebuilding of Congo’s decayed infrastructure, if elected president.

While Pay Pay, Bemba and Kabila take leading positions in the presidential race, another candidate is drawing attention, but not necessarily because he is seen has having a great chance of victory at the polls.

Azaria Ruberwa, also a rebel turned vice-president, heads the Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, RCD) – formerly backed by Rwanda. He has support from a minority Tutsi community in the east, but is blamed by others for numerous massacres and atrocities during the 1998-2002 war.

Ruberwa’s campaign team was stoned on several occasions in the eastern North Kivu province, these instances being amongst several cases of violence to have marred the run up to Sunday’s vote.

The former rebel has reportedly pledged not to resort to violence if he loses at the polls. However, many fear the RCD may yet take up arms, supported by renegade general Laurent Nkunda and the thousands of soldiers who are loyal to him – to retain control of North Kivu.

Veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi is also a force to be reckoned with, even though he is not in the presidential race.

Tshisekedi asked his supporters not to register as voters for Sunday’s elections, insisting that he would boycott the polls. He later backtracked to say he would contest the presidency, but only if voter enrollment was re-opened to allow his supporters to register.

The Independent Electoral Commission (Commission Electorale Independente) refused Tshisekedi’s demands. Despite these inconsistences, he remains an influential figure, with strong support in the capital and the diamond-rich Kasai provinces, in south-central DRC.

The opposition leader heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social) party, which is not participating in the elections either.

“Tshisekedi is the only true president of this country,” said David Makaya, a 21-year-old art student in Kinshasa . “It is a shame we will not be able to vote for him.”

But Gael Lema, a medical student, seemed more optimistic: “This is an opportunity for Congo’s ordinary people to express themselves…There is no dictatorship now. We can all dream of leading Congo.”

Not just yet, though. Candidates were required to pay 50,000 dollars to contest the presidency – a vast amount in a country where many live on less than a dollar a day, and a teacher can earn just 20 dollars a month.

In the event that none of the presidential candidates wins a majority of the vote Sunday, a run-off between the two with the most ballots will be held Oct. 15. Final results are scheduled to be in by the end of November.

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