Monday, July 24, 2006

National Elections Set for July 30 in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Opposition to boycott DRC elections

Sophia Bouderbala
Mon, 24 Jul 2006

The Democratic Republic of Congo goes to the polls on July 30 for historic presidential and parliamentary elections that will be a key test for peace and stability in the entire Great Lakes region.

The elections in the former Zaire are the first multi-party vote in 46 years and will replace the transitional power-sharing government set up in 2003 after a peace deal in the five-year interstate conflict dubbed "Africa's World War".

Nearly four million people are estimated to have died either directly or indirectly from the fighting, which drew in armies from up to seven other African states in complex alliances, destabilised the region and led to what may have been the greatest loss of life since World War II.

But concerns remain as to how effective the elections will be in ending decades of dictatorship, corruption and bloody conflict that have blighted the vast central African state, which is rich in minerals but whose population is desperately poor.

A key opposition party is boycotting the internationally monitored poll, claiming a "lack of transparency"; violence continues in the unstable east bordering Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda; while the voting system itself has been criticised as complicated.

Elections could kick-start the crippled economy

If successful, the elections could help kick-start the crippled economy in the former Belgian colony, a country the size of Western Europe, which has the potential to be a powerhouse for central Africa.

A legitimate government could also help lessen the influence of the 20 or more armed groups active in the country, not just against the Kinshasa authorities but also against the fragile administrations in next-door Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

"DRC isn't a country, it's a veritable continent which has borders with nine countries. If DRC sneezes, nine countries catch cold," said Aldo Ajello, the European Union's special representative in the Great Lakes region.

"Sorting out DRC is vital for the stability of the region."

Some of the 30 000 Congolese now living in Brussels are also desperate for change, if only to prevent the DRC and its rich natural resources, which include gold and diamonds, being carved up for the benefit of foreign powers.

The presidential election is in many respects a continuation of long-standing, deadly political rivalries.

Joseph Kabila, the current president, who took over when his father Laurent-Desire was murdered in 2001, is favourite to win.

Three of the four vice-presidents in his interim government are among the 32 other candidates. Two of them — Jean-Pierre Bemba and Azarias Ruberwa — headed foreign-backed rebel groups that opposed Kabila's father during the 1998-2003 war.

The candidates also include Nzanga Mobutu, son of late dictator Mobutu Seke Seso, and Pierre Pay-Pay, central bank governor during Mobutu's 32-year kleptocratic regime.

Mobutu seized power in 1965, bleeding the country dry for personal profit until Kabila senior toppled him in 1997. He received backing from the United States as a bulwark against Soviet influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kabila and Mobutu junior are not the only members of political dynasties vying for a return to power.

Also standing for election are Guy-Patrice Lumumba and Justine Mpoyo Kasa-Vubu, whose fathers Patrice and Joseph were the country's first elected prime minister and president respectively.

Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961 — a year after independence — while Joseph Kasa-Vubu was ousted in the coup by Mobutu, then head of the army.

Bitter ethnic violence

Since 1999 the United Nations has maintained a 17 600-strong peacekeeping mission (MONUC) — currently its largest in the world — in the DRC, particularly to calm the bitter ethnic violence that continues in the eastern provinces.

It will be supported in providing security during the elections by 1 000 European Union soldiers in Kinshasa and a similar number in reserve in Gabon.

Observers see the main threat to the electoral process in the eastern provinces. Here foreign rebel groups, dissident DRC soldiers and local militia continue to hold sway, exacerbating longstanding cross-border ethnic tensions and land disputes.

The logistics of the vote also pose problems — the vast DRC's infrastructure is non-existent. There are practically no roads in the country so access to 50 000 polling stations will be far from easy, as will the preparation and collection of ballot papers.

The voting slips themselves are hardly straightforward either, particularly for an electorate of 25.6-million that is largely uneducated and, in many cases, has never voted before.

There are two elections on July 30 — a first-round presidential ballot and a poll to choose between a massive 9 707 candidates standing for just 500 parliamentary seats.

On average 15 candidates are standing per constituency but that rises to 65 in Kinshasa. Some papers are poster-size and will have to be folded up to 20 times before being put in the ballot box.

During a trial-run earlier this month, some people took up to 20 minutes to make their choice. Others just gave up.

With a mix of single-seat constituencies using a first-past-the-post system and others with a form of proportional representation, the count — and predicted recounts — look likely to be a lengthy process.


KINSHASA 21 July 2006 Sapa-AFP


The official electoral body in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday denied reports of irregularities in the run-up to the central African state's historic vote later this month, as the Catholic Church threatened to withhold recognition of the results.

"There have been no irregularities in the organization of these elections," Malu Malu told journalists at the UN mission
headquarters in Kinshasa.

"The electoral list published by the independent electoral
commission is reliable and will be posted inside the polling
stations. We have an accurate count of the ballots, as well," said commission chief Malu Malu.

The electoral commission is the only entity capable of organizing elections in the DRC," he added. "It must not be put under pressure."

On Friday the main Catholic body in the DRC joined several
rights groups, the United Nations and members of the political
opposition in signalling irregularities in the run-up to the July 30 presidential and parliamentary polls.

"At the present time all the necessary conditions have not been fulfilled to enable truly transparent, free and democratic elections to take place," the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (Cenco) said in a statement.

The Cenco said that "an ensemble of evidence confirms fears
of manipulation and trickery, if not fraud".

It pointed out what it said were contradictions in the electoral lists and in the number of voters, as well as the "embarrassed" reaction of the electoral commission to an apparent surplus of ballot sheets.

"This is why the Cenco is asking - and will not recognize the
validity of the elections otherwise - all concerned parties to
work to redress the irregularities that have been identified, and to create the necessary conditions for truth, transparency
and freedom..."

The declaration was signed by the Cenco's president, Monsignor
Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, and its vice-president, Tharcisse
Tshibangu Tshishiku.

More than 30 million ballots printed in South Africa have been
sent to the DRC where they will be progressively delivered to the 50,000 polling stations across the vast nation.

More than 25 million people are expected to turn out for the
polls in the former Zaire, which are designed to conclude a fragile transitional period that followed the end in 2003 of the five-year war that engulfed the DRC and drew in five of its neighbors.

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