Tue, Aug 01, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Polling stations in central Congo reopen for voting

AP , MBUJI-MAYI, CONGO

Congolese voters show their voting cards at a polling station in Kinshasa on Sunday. More than 25 million voters are expected to cast their vote for president and parliament in the first democratic election in more than 45 years.

PHOTO: AP

Election officials were reopening dozens of polling stations yesterday for a second day in the stronghold of a Congolese politician who was staging a boycott, giving voters another chance to cast ballots after violence kept them from voting in elections a day earlier, officials said.

Amid stepped-up security, authorities would reopen 172 polling stations in the central diamond-mining Congo city of Mbuji-Mayi, where presumed supporters of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi burned polling stations and voting material during Sunday's watershed vote, said Hubert Tisuaka, an election official.

Fresh balloting material arrived late on Sunday from the capital, Kinshasa, he said.

The vote, scheduled nationwide only for Sunday, is to select a new president and legislature to replace Congo's postwar, transitional administration. It's the first multiparty elections in 45 years of strife and dictatorship the balloting is meant to end.

Electoral officials and observers outnumbered voters at many polling stations on Sunday, and the UN, based on quotes by Congolese election officials, said that on an otherwise largely peaceful day of voting, 11 voting stations had been burned down by people opposed to the vote in central provinces.

A rock thrown into an Mbuji-Mayi station sent a lone voter fleeing. Outside, boycotters pelted would-be voters with stones until they in turn were chased by baton-wielding police officers.

Tshisekedi, who called for the boycott and has his main base of support in central Congo, has long taken a principled stand against violence. If his boycott is successful, he is likely to use that as proof of his influence as he pushes for a greater say in national politics. But several of the leading candidates are former rebels who still command private armed militias, and could pose a real threat in the crucial, post-election period.

Tshisekedi asked his supporters not to register as voters when rolls were opened last year, claiming the negotiations that led to the vote were flawed. He later backtracked and said he would contest the presidency, but only if voter enrollment were reopened to allow his supporters to register. Congo's electoral commission refused, saying there was no time.

Tshisekedi denies he made a tactical error that will hurt his supporters. But the failure of many of his supporters to register has an effect beyond Sunday's vote.

The 500 seats in the National Assembly were allocated according to the number of registered voters. Mbuji-Mayi, Congo's second largest city with nearly 4 million people, will have only 11 seats, compared to 58 for the 8 million residents of Kinshasa, the capital.

That could mean more marginalization for the central region, known as Kasai, which declared secession months after independence from Belgium in 1960.

Given the country's ethnic and regional disputes and political rivalries, the government's challenge after the vote will be to persuade Congolese that democracy, while it cannot solve all their problems, is the best option for resolving their differences.

Military strongman Mobutu Sese Seko took power and reunited the nation after democratically elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba, a son of Kasai, was assassinated in 1961. Mobutu led the nation he called Zaire as a personal fiefdom for 32 years, using its mineral riches to fatten foreign banks accounts said to hold US$4 billion.

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