Congo's Historic Chance for Democracy

Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo go to the polls Sunday for the nation's first democratic elections in almost 50 years. Voters will choose among dozens of candidates running for president, and literally thousands of others vying to join Parliament.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Sunday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many people will be voting for new leaders for the first time ever. The last real elections were 46 years ago. Voters are eager and there's plenty of choice, 33 candidates for president, thousands more running for one of the 500 legislative seats. Here's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

A proverb in the Democratic Republic of Congo says the first one is not necessarily the winner.

(Soundbite of singing)

ARCTON: It's a message Congo's most popular singer, Papa Wemba, wants fellow voters to remember as they cast their ballots for president on Sunday. That everyone, and especially Congo, should be a winner in these landmark elections.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PAPA WEMBA (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

ARCTON: In this song, Papa Wemba is telling the Congolese to vote in their masses, in what he hopes will be free, transparent and democratic polls.

(Soundbite of singing)

ARCTON: Campaigning has been colorful and tuneful, but personalities rather than issues have taken center stage at election rallies. Yet Congo is a country with real problems, emerging from conflict with continuing pockets of unrest. It's rich in natural resources and minerals, but many parts of this huge country are dirt poor with no running water, no electricity, no roads and no railways. Like this farming village, Kindankin(ph).

Only 60 miles northeast of Kinshasa, Kindankin seems a world away from the Congolese capital. It has seen few of the dividends of the peace deal or modern life. The villagers say no candidates have bothered even to show up to campaign in this forgotten corner of Congo.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

ARCTON: At the age of 48, Belem Madela(ph) is a struggling cassava farmer with two wives, 12 children and no money. He wants dynamic new leaders who will bring peace, end disorder, create jobs and provide functioning public services for Congo.

(Soundbite of singing)

ARCTON: Back in the capital, urban voters attend noisy rallies with live music, where cold drinks, beers, campaign caps and t-shirts are handed out. Kinshasa is a far cry from Kindankin, but many of the concerns are the same: peace, security, jobs. Incumbent president and ex-rebel commander Joseph Kabila and rival former warlords are the favorite contenders for president.

Young voters question what real difference the elections will make. Student Adele Infacolo(ph) worries that the losers may reject the election results, raising the specter of renewed conflict in Congo.

Ms. ADELE INFACOLO (Student, Congo): Because when you follow what politicians say during the campaign, some of them says that if they don't pass they are going to fight again. Those were rebels. And if they don't become president, you might think that after elections there might be some violence in our country.

ARCTON: The month-long election campaign has been mostly peaceful in Congo. But there have been sporadic killings and violent clashes, mainly between party supporters and riot police. Security forces used tear gas this week to disperse crowds throwing stones and fire bombs.

The question is: will the elections bring peace or a return to war in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kinshasa.

(Soundbite of music)

ARCTON: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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