Vote Marks DRC's Second Democratic Election

Millions of voters go to the polls in the Democratic Republic of Congo Monday in only the second election in its history. The mood in the country is tense. The current president Joseph Kabila is deeply unpopular, but many in Congo believe he will go to any lengths to hold onto power. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's been a day of confusion, disorganization and some violence during voting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Voters are choosing a president and members of Parliament today, in just the second democratic election in Congo's history. And after years of dictatorship followed by civil war in the vast, central African nation, the hopes for peace and stability are high.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us from Kinshasa, the capital. And Ofeibea, what did you see? How can you describe today's voting?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: A really mixed day depending on which polling stations you went to. Some polling stations here in Kinshasa, things went calmly. Election materials were in place; people were able to find their names; and they were able to vote.

But that wasn't the case in many places here in the capital. There's been a lot of frustration today, as voters were searching A, for their names and B, for the faces of their candidates for the legislative election. It's a huge, huge ballot paper - the size of a weekend newspaper supplement - that they had to go through, look through the portraits and try and identify their candidates, and then vote.

Many people would say they weren't able to do that, and they are furious. And in some instances here in Kinshasa and in other parts of the country, in the provinces, there has been violence, and then isolated incidents of people burning ballot boxes. So altogether, there's a sort of nervous tension here in Congo as people continue to vote into the night - those who didn't, if they were in the lines, and of course when counting starts.

BLOCK: And Ofeibea, what's at the root of these problems today with the voting?

QUIST-ARCTON: Many people will say that Congo went to elections too soon. These are the second elections since the end of the back-to-back civil wars, and of course the second democratic elections in the 51-year history of Congo. But it seems that the electoral commission was not quite ready. Although it's such a vast country, it has very few paved roads, so election materials had to be delivered by helicopters by the U.N. peacekeeping mission, by South Africa, and other neighboring countries who stepped in.

But, of course, they had to go by river. They had to go by air, and then they had to be delivered to the furthest points in this country - literally, by porters carrying things on their heads. So some were saying there should be a delay. But the electoral commission said it was ready. Many Congolese are going to ask: But were you ready enough? And the fear is, because the run-up to the election there was violence - even at the weekend here in Kinshasa, with one or two people killed as the security forces opened fire with live ammunition into crowds - people fear that there might be more violence if the results of this election are contested.

BLOCK: And Ofeibea, we mentioned that Congo is emerging from this long period of civil war. How high are the expectations that this election can help to heal what's happened there?

QUIST-ARCTON: Very high, and very low. People were really hoping. But Congo has got on paper an economic growth rate that should be exciting, that should really make people feel good. But in reality, it has not translated into better living standards, into a better life for the average Congolese.

And this is a country that is mineral-rich. There's coltan, used in the manufacture of cell phones; tin ore; diamonds; you name it, Congo has it. But many Congolese feel that despite their wealth, this has really worked against them. It has fueled civil war, continuing conflict in the volatile east of the country, a part of the county known as the Rape Capital of the World because sexual violence has become a weapon of war.

So although Congo, on paper, has huge potential, in reality that has not happened. But President Joseph Kabila, who's facing 10 other challengers to become the new president, says - you know - judge me on my record. I am pulling this country forward, consolidating peace and development. His opponents say: No, you have not done enough. You've been 10 years in power; time for you to go.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, talking about the elections there today. Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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