Wed, Aug 02, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Vote brings ray of hope to Congo

CLEAN ELECTION With a relatively transparent poll in the DRC, hopes are rising that the impoverished country may be moving away from its war-torn past

AFP , KINSHASA

Voters wait outside a polling station in Dele, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Sunday. The country held its first democratic election in more than four decades on Sunday, a colossal democratic exercise many hope will secure an end to years of fighting and corrupt rule that have devastated this gigantic, mineral-rich nation in the heart of Africa.

PHOTO: AP

An anxious month-long wait for election results began on Monday in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with foreign governments expressing relief that the voting had gone smoothly, while urging candidates to respect the final outcome.

By late afternoon, about 60 percent of ballots in the presidential and parliamentary elections had been processed. But the final count will not be known until Aug. 31 because of the vast size of the DRC and the ravages inflicted by decades of war and instability.

The two main presidential contenders -- youthful incumbent Joseph Kabila and rebel-turned-politician Jean-Pierre Bemba -- said they saw no reason to cry foul, despite some irregularities and incidents of violence.

But several minor candidates, including the son of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, alleged there had been serious irregularities in the polls -- the first multi-party elections since independence from Belgium 46 years ago.

The electoral commission said voting had been extended on Monday in more than 200 districts in the central province of Kasai. They included the diamond mining town of Mbuyi-Maji, where supporters of a party that boycotted the polls threw stones and torched polling stations during the weekend.

Kabila himself thanked voters for otherwise showing "patriotism [and] carrying out their civic duty in peace, calm and order."

World leaders welcomed the peaceful conduct of the polls in a country that was still engulfed in civil war just three years ago. They urged political rivals to respect the outcome of this vital test for peace and democracy.

Praise came from the African Union and the International Committee supporting the Transition in the DRC (CIAT), which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Former colonial power Belgium said the elections would be "very encouraging for the future" if the "constructive spirit" that accompanied them endured.

South Africa, which helped broker the peace accord that ended the 1998-2003 civil war, said: "Despite tremendous difficulties -- technology, logistical nightmares and the conflict situation in many areas -- we can say from initial reports we have it has gone off very well."

The US, which had backed the kleptocratic Mobutu as one of its bulwarks against Soviet influence in Africa, hailed an "important step towards ... a prosperous and peaceful democracy".

In Brussels, the EU's aid and development commissioner, Belgian Louis Michel, said: "This is the concrete realization of a very old dream for the Congolese. A real opportunity for rejuvenation is now within reach."

Britain urged the candidates, many of whom had been bitter rivals in the civil wars that have plagued the country, to "walk through that door together peacefully, respecting whatever proves to be the people's choice."

The results of the vote for a 500-seat parliament are expected within weeks.

A second presidential ballot will take place on Oct. 29 unless Kabila or one of his 32 challengers wins the first round outright.

At 35, Kabila is Africa's youngest head of state and one that few thought would survive. But he has won over the Congolese and the West by holding together complex peace deals in the aftermath of what the UN dubbed "Africa's World War."

The 1998-2003 conflict sucked in the armies of seven neighboring states, claimed millions of lives and turned the DRC into a running sore at the centre of the continent.

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