- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

KINSHASA, Congo — Millions of Congolese voted yesterday in their country’s first multiparty elections in four decades, the culmination of years of postwar transition that many pray will herald stability for the Central Africa region that Congo anchors.

But with militia fighters still raping and looting in the lawless east, former rebel leaders on the ballot and a leading politician — veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi — boycotting the vote, persuading all parties to accept the results may be the toughest task of all.

Voters, including many casting ballots for the first time in their lives, feared wars that set Central Africa ablaze could flare anew if Congo’s democratic experiment fails.

Vote counting began after polls closed yesterday evening, but final results were not expected for weeks. Results will be hand-counted, and the ballots will be transported to the capital, Kinshasa, by plane, truck and boat.

“Some say Africa is shaped like a pistol, and Congo is the trigger,” said Jean Kaseke, a 38-year old pastor heading up a line that formed before dawn at a polling station in the capital. “If Congo can succeed, all of Africa can do it.”

Congo’s path to yesterday’s watershed moment — the first multiparty election for president since independence from Belgium in 1960 — has been one of turmoil and deep privation for Congo’s almost 60 million people.

About 25 million registered voters also were selecting a 500-member legislature to replace a national-unity administration arranged under peace accords that officially ended a 1998-2002 war.

President Joseph Kabila, 35, became one of the world’s youngest leaders in 2001 when he inherited power after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who had ousted the corrupt, 32-year dictator Mobutu Sese Seko four years earlier in a Rwanda-backed rebel advance across the country.

More than six nearby nations were drawn into the war. Aid groups estimate that 4 million died, mostly from hunger and disease, in a conflict that still kills 1,000 daily.

Among the top issues in a campaign that saw at least 33 die in political violence were ending corruption and bringing economic development to Congo, whose people remain poor despite the country’s wealth of diamonds, ores and minerals.

Mr. Kabila is considered among the front-runners. The seven-page ballot lists 33 candidates for president and more than 9,000 aspiring lawmakers.

The winner’s administration will replace the transitional government, which includes four vice presidents, among them another top presidential contender, former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Surrounded by a dozen bodyguards and wearing a blue pinstriped suit, Mr. Kabila cast his ballot at a ramshackle colonial-era school with broken windows.

“We’re looking forward to a future of peace,” Mr. Kabila told a mob of shouting reporters. “We want to consolidate peace and stability in the country.”

Mr. Bemba said he was “very confident and satisfied” with the poll. “I’m waiting for the people of Congo to turn the page.”

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