Congo Voters Go to Polls for First Time in Decades

Polls open Sunday in Congo for that nation's first democratic elections in more than 40 years. Many hope the vote will help turn the page after decades of dictatorship and civil war.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In Congo, voters go to the polls tomorrow to choose a new president. It will be the impoverished nation's first democratic elections in nearly 50 years. The candidates include former warlords as well as technocrats. Many hope the vote will help turn the page for Congo after decades of dictatorship and civil war. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and has this report.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

The presidential race is a crowded field. There are 33 wannabe presidents, including the current, unelected, 35-year-old President Joseph Kabila.

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Kabila supporters were out in force during his last rally in Kinshasa before campaigning ended Friday midnight. Kabila succeeded his late father, Congo's then-leader Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated five years ago. Joseph Kabila himself was a one-time rebel commander in his father's Rwandan-backed army that ousted the regime of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Kabila hopes to become Congo's new democratically elected president and defends his leadership record. But even he admits that his mineral-rich, potentially wealthy country is in poor shape.

President JOSEPH KABILA (Congo): Yes, Congo is in a terrible mess. The Congo - or Congo's history, it is not stat with Mr. Joseph Kabila. The fact is that there was misrule from 1960 up to 2001. In 2001, we set ourselves objectives, priorities. We decided to organize elections, first democratic elections. That in itself is a success and a success story.

QUIST-ARCTON: Joseph Kabila is viewed as being in a strong position to win, but if he doesn't, he says he will accept defeat peacefully.

President KABILA: Of course, I am a democrat. If we lose the elections, myself, the political family, political party or parties, yes, it will have been the verdict of the people, and, of course, we will definitely accept the verdict of the people.

QUIST-ARCTON: Seventeen thousand, six hundred United Nations peacekeepers and European troops are promising to protect voters in Sunday's polls. Many of the candidates, including Jean-Pierre Bemba, were warlords, and the issue of post-election violence is a worry to many Congolese.

Campaigning turned ugly at Bemba's last rally after clashes erupted between his supporters and security forces, reportedly killing several people. Bemba is one of Congo's full vice presidents under Kabila, his one-time foe. Bemba rejected criticism that rebel leaders should not become president.

Mr. JEAN-PIERRE BEMBA (Presidential Candidate and Former Warlord): You know that even the president today comes from the war. I know the price of peace because I negotiate peace. I know I saw the disaster of the war, so we will do all our best to restore security and peace in the whole country.

QUIST-ARCTON: Others seeking the presidency include the offspring of former presidents Mobutu and Kasa-Vubu, as well as Congo's short-lived Independence Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Also on the ballot, a Harvard-trained cancer specialist, Oscar Kashala. He calls himself Mr. Clean because he was out of the country during most of Mobutu's corrupt rule and the years of conflict.

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QUIST-ARCTON: The noisy campaigns are now over, but with the vote just hours away, Congolese political analyst and pollster Francesca Bomboko says it's now up to the people of Congo and they're ready. But Bomboko added that calls to boycott the vote by the veteran Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi may prove to be a problem if his supporters don't accept the results. But she says the fact that Tshisekedi didn't register as a presidential candidate was a boon to other contenders.

Ms. FRANCESCA BOMBOKO (Congolese Political Analyst): I think that his nonparticipation, being the main opposition group, everybody was scared of him. He represents, I think, 20 to 25 percent of the voters, which is quite considerable. And so politically, everybody was happy that he did not participate. There was one main rival out of the way, so to speak.

QUIST-ARCTON: About 25 million voters are registered for tomorrow's elections. If the first round doesn't yield a clear winner, a runoff between the two top candidates would likely be held some time in October. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kinshasa.

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