- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

KOTONI, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Congo is holding its first free elections in 40 years on Sunday, in the hopes that a democratically chosen government can end years of fighting and improve the lot of the people of the poorest country on earth.

Congo was ruled for three decades by one of the most corrupt rulers in history, Mobutu Sese Seko. For the past decade, it has suffered through a bloody, chaotic civil war that has killed more than 4 million people, mainly in the eastern half of the country.

A peace agreement in 2003 brought together four vice presidents, including some rebel leaders, along with President Joseph Kabila in a government of national unity. Although fighting persists, the worst appears to be over. Now, as the next step in the peace process, these elections will provide the first democratically elected leaders that most people here have known.

“Everyone is excited about the elections. We’re all talking about them,” said Emmanuel Matata, a pastor and the president of a camp for Congolese displaced by fighting between irredentist militia groups and government forces.

“We’re trusting that after the elections things will improve. Now we have five presidents and the situation isn’t improving. Maybe if we have one president things will get better,” he said.

Mr. Kabila, 35, who became president in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated, is favored to win the presidential race, the first democratic election in the country — formerly known as Zaire — since independence from Belgium in 1960. Laurent Kabila led a guerrilla movement that overthrew Mobutu in 1997.

The elections, like Congo itself, are huge and difficult to manage. The country is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi and a quarter the size of China, but it has less than 300 miles of paved roads and the main form of intercity transportation is walking. There are 33 candidates for president, and more than 9,000 legislative candidates from 269 parties.

The United Nations has had to lend helicopters to help transport ballot equipment to remote areas, and international donors have spent more than $400 million to help set up the elections. U.N. officials have said they expect the vote to be generally fair, despite charges of bribery and other irregularities.

In the Ituri district, an estimated 20 percent of the population lives in territory still controlled by rebel groups. It is not clear whether or how they will vote. No polling station is located in Kotoni, 12 miles south of Bunia, and it’s still too dangerous for the residents to return to their home villages.

“Here in Ituri, we’ve suffered so much because we didn’t have good leaders,” said Marck Bamaraki Lonema, a 28-year-old farmer. Fourteen members of his family, including his wife and four children, were killed in 2003 during the ethnic fighting that engulfed this region. “The wars here, it was all because we did not have good leadership. … We don’t have any trust in what they are doing. We have to see how they do after the elections and if we don’t like them we can change them,” he said.

A dry run for this election, a constitutional referendum in December, had a 70 percent turnout and was generally considered a success.

But the constitution was widely supported by a population weary of war and ready for a new start. The election, in which former battlefield rivals are squaring off, provides many more incentives for disruption.

At least a plurality of voters are expected to choose Mr. Kabila. As an incumbent, he enjoys name recognition and organizational advantages. He is credited by many Congolese, especially those in the east, for his role in stopping the war.

“Kabila has been appointed by God. We love him for what he’s doing for this country, trying to bring peace,” said Mr. Matata, the camp leader.

The big losers are expected to be parties that evolved from rebel movements, as they gained power through force but have little public backing. Many fear that rebel groups may try to disrupt the vote.

“In the current situation, I’m not very hopeful that the election will be held successfully,” said one U.N. military intelligence officer in eastern Congo, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The best established opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, is boycotting the elections, which also could compromise their legitimacy.

The international community has beefed up security in advance of the vote. In addition to a 16,000-soldier U.N. peacekeeping force, the European Union is dedicating about 3,500 soldiers to temporary election security duty: 800 troops in Kinshasa, 1,200 in Gabon and 1,500 on call in Europe.

That Mr. Kabila is the man to beat is demonstrated by the opposition’s campaign tactics, which focus on Mr. Kabila’s background — he grew up in Tanzania, not Congo — and accusations that he bought his university degree.

At a rally in nearby Bunia for one of the more popular parties, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, the focus, at least indirectly, was on Mr. Kabila. Speaking of the party’s candidate, Uganda-backed rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, the local party representative, shouted, “He is not a foreigner. He is 100 percent a child of Congo,” to which the crowd responded by chanting, “100 percent, 100 percent.”

Several candidates claim Mobutu’s mantle. His son is running under one party, and his former party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), is running as well. The MPR faced only token opposition during the Mobutu era.

In an interview, the president of the local branch of the MPR, Dhesa Bura Baloma, said stories about Mobutu’s corruption — he stole an estimated $5 billion from the country during his reign — were false, and that the country would love to have him back. He died in 1997.

“There is no one in Congo who has done as much good as Mobutu,” he said. “Now the people are crying out for him, but he is dead.”

Nevertheless, most observers expect the Mobutuist parties to receive only a scant number of votes.

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