- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The hopes of millions of impoverished Congolese ride on today’s elections, the first democratic multiparty election in more than 40 years.

Ex-rebel leaders who once governed massive chunks of the nation as private fiefdoms are running against a young incumbent who brought them into the government to end years of fighting.

If multiparty politics can take hold in Congo, a nation the size of Western Europe, all of Africa will have turned a critical corner.

Dozens have died in election-related violence that saw rampaging mobs clash with riot police in the capital. One parliamentary candidate in the east fled the country because of shootings.

In the central city of Mbuji Mayi, opposition militants attacked a truck carrying voting materials yesterday, setting it ablaze as they shouted “Nobody is going to vote,” and stoned police who fired tear gas.

Elections have been pushed back twice already, but despite charges of corruption, ongoing fighting between the army and militias, elections seemed to be on track for today.

About 23 million registered voters will cast ballots for one of 33 presidential candidates and choose from more than 9,000 candidates to fill a new 500-member parliament.

“This is potentially a turning point for the Congo. If elections go well and are seen as free and transparent, then they are the first step in helping to move Congo onto a more peaceful footing,” said Anneke van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“A stable Congo could become the driving force for development in the rest of Africa.”

But major obstacles exist. Much of the country lacks roads, electricity and running water. To deliver election ballots to one village outside of Mambasa involves a four-day hike through the forest.

The stumbling blocks are not only logistical.

“The institutions that are organizing the election are politicized — the police, army, media and the electoral commission are all plagued by allegations of corruption and political favor that have really soured the climate in the run-up to elections,” said Jason Stearns with the International Crisis Group.

War in the Congo supposedly ended with a peace agreement in 2002. Four million have died in what is the worst toll since World War II.

Laurent Kabila, father of President Joseph Kabila, took power after the 32-year reign of hated tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko in a 1996 coup.

For John Ukunya, in charge of the Ituri region’s Independent Electoral Commission office, the continued fighting is a greater stumbling block than the country’s daunting lack of infrastructure, itself a formative obstacle.

“Those who are still dominated by the militias — and it’s impossible for them to vote — we can’t do anything for them.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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