Congo Votes Amid Expectations of Fraud and Fears of Violence
Publisher: The Washington Post
Story date: 28/11/2011
Language: English

KINSHASA, Congo — After weekend clashes between supporters of rival parties and security forces firing on crowds, Congolese began voting on Monday in only the second election in this vast and troubled country in which the entire population has been able to vote.

President Joseph Kabila, the incumbent, is fighting challenges from 10 rivals while 500 seats in Parliament are being contested by more than 18,500 candidates.

In the eastern lakeside town of Goma, which has seen some of the worst pre-election violence, Reuters reported, polls opened slightly late but thousands of people lined up to cast their ballots. News reports said that at one polling station in the southern city of Lubumbashi ballot boxes did not arrive on time.

As the vote approached, several people were killed at political rallies, including two men who were smashed with rocks on Saturday. President Kabila's security forces have been widely accused of torturing opposition supporters. The opposition, for that matter, is hardly faultless, and Etienne Tshisekedi, a 78-year-old firebrand and the leading presidential challenger, recently declared himself president and stirred up his supporters to break their comrades out of jail.

There have been delays, myriad logistical problems and growing accusations of fraud. More alarming, analysts say, is the possibility that the presidential race will be close, seriously testing this country's dangerously weak institutions.

"People are scared," said Dishateli Kinguza, who sells baseball caps from a rickety stand here in Kinshasa, the capital. "Actually, I'm scared. If people don't accept who wins, it's going to be bad."

This enormous nation in the heart of Africa plunged into war in 1996 when rebel fighters and Congo's neighbors teamed up to overthrow one of the most corrupt men on the most corrupt continent, Mobutu Sese Seko, Congo's former dictator who ran this country into the ground during three decades of kleptocratic rule.

Congo has never really recovered, especially in its staggeringly beautiful eastern region, where the real spoils are: the gold, the diamonds, the tin ore, the endless miles of towering hardwood forest. Brutal rebel groups still haunt the hills, pillaging minerals and killing and raping at will.

Congo's stagnation or even worse, its reverse development — this year the United Nations ranked it dead last of the 187 countries on the Human Development Index — is driving many people to vote against Mr. Kabila, who has been in power since 2001.

"I don't see any changes in my life," said Angel Nyamayoka, a single mother of seven children who scrapes by on $2 a day. "We have to vote for anyone but Kabila."

Many analysts say it is hard to see how Mr. Kabila could win this election fairly. Mr. Tshisekedi, a veteran Congolese politician still revered for standing up to Mr. Mobutu, is very popular in Kinshasa. He is also seen as a father figure of the Luba ethnic group, one of Congo's biggest, and is expected to carry the populous Kasai regions in the south and pick up anti-Kabila votes across the country.

Mr. Kabila, 40, has never been well liked in Kinshasa, where many people view him as an outsider, possibly even foreign born, who does not comfortably speak Lingala, the lingua franca. In 2006, the last election, Mr. Kabila relied on eastern Congo to win the presidency. But this time around, eastern Congo has its own champion running for president — Vital Kamerhe, the well-educated former speaker of the national assembly who hails from the city of Bukavu and is expected to draw votes away from Mr. Kabila.

A recent United Nations report described a "general climate of intimidation" with opposition supporters "threatened, beaten or arrested" and noted an episode in July in which Republican Guard soldiers set up a roadblock in a central Congolese town and warned residents that a new war would break out if they did not vote for Mr. Kabila.

"If it is close," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, "the chance for significant unrest is high."

But there is a crucial difference between this election and 2006, when intense gun battles erupted on Kinshasa's boulevards between Mr. Kabila's forces and the militia of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the presidential runner-up. This time around, most opposition supporters are not part of a militia and therefore do not have guns.

Western diplomats predict that Mr. Kabila, who this year pressured the Parliament to change Congo's Constitution and eliminate a second round of voting, will win a thin plurality, spurring opposition protests in Congo's biggest cities. But many Congolese say their country has become so exhausted and jaded that the protests will not degenerate into all-out rebellion and that they will eventually fizzle out.

"We'll take to the streets and burn some tires and the police will shoot at us and we'll throw rocks," said Mr. Kinguza, the vendor of baseball caps. "But that will probably be about it."

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.

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