Congolese hopeful as they head to polls

The Democratic Republic of Congo votes Sunday in its first free presidential election in 46 years.

Voters in this vast mineral-rich central African country are hoping that Sunday's presidential election – the country's first in 46 years – will usher in democracy and development after four decades of predatory misrule and horrific violence.

Across the country 25.7 million registered voters will be faced with tablecloth-sized ballot papers listing the 33 presidential hopefuls and 9,700 parliamentary candidates.

With only 300 miles of paved road in a country one quarter the size of the United States and covered by half the forest on the African continent, just getting the 1,800 tons of ballot papers distributed to the 53,000 polling stations has required more than 75 flights and countless trips in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Even after a massive voter education campaign, groups can still be seen crowding around sample ballot sheets discussing how to properly cast their vote.

Yet, despite the monumental logistical challenges – and early claims of irregularities, sporadic violence, and opposition boycotts – most Congolese voters, especially in the country's war-torn east, have an optimistic outlook.

"I will vote for Joseph Kabila because he brought us peace, and when he is president he will bring us jobs," says a smiling Paulin Murimu, an unemployed 37-year-old from Bukavu in eastern Congo. Joseph Kabila, 35-year-old son and heir to the presidency of his murdered father Laurent, is popular in this part of eastern Congo. And, with total control of the state media, Mr. Kabila is the only candidate with name recognition across the vast country, making him the favorite to win.

Sunday's polls are considered key to preventing the fragile country from sliding back into a complex war that could again draw in other neighboring countries. The election – the most expensive in Africa's history – is more than a year late and is costing the international community $432 million.

This huge investment means the international community cannot afford the polls to fail. As one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity explains: "The huge costs in time, energy, and money to get where we are now means the poll has to happen," despite continued insecurity in the east, and allegations of irregularities.

Legacy of war

When Congo's last two civil wars began – in 1996 and again in 1998 – they started here in the country's eastern border region.

A peace agreement signed in 2002 ended the fighting but only on paper. The last round of conflict, which began in 1998, killed 3.9 million people, most from malnutrition and disease rather than direct violence.

According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) 1,200 still die every day in Congo. Xavier Bardou, IRC deputy program director for Congo, says, "Even if we are in a legal state of peace, we are still in a war in terms of the impact on the population."

Rebel militias, some backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, continue to roam the east while a shaky transitional government in charge of an ill-disciplined and poorly paid army rules from the capital, Kinshasa, a thousand miles to the west.

International efforts to move toward peace

Filling the gap left by a dysfunctional state is $6 billion of international aid poured into Congo since the 2002 peace deal. The United Nations has put the world's largest peacekeeping force on the ground in Congo, spending over $1 billion this year alone to run the 17,600-strong forces of the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC). A quarter of MONUC's budget goes to the airplanes and helicopters needed to get around the country.

The worst insecurity has been in Ituri Province, bordering Uganda, where a rebel coalition, the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC), has displaced thousands in recent months. However, its leaders agreed Thursday to a peace accord with the government.

Despite the presence of armed groups in the east – including the 6,000-strong Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), led by some of those responsible for the 1994 genocide in that country – it is relatively calm only days ahead of the polls.

In Kinshasa, however, there have been protests by opposition supporters who argue that the elections are a foreign imposition rigged in favor of Kabila and are demanding that they be called off. Police have moved swiftly to spray tear gas at rioters and beat them into submission.

Still, most observers expect polling day itself to go smoothly. What they fear is the reaction of the election losers – and their often-armed followers – as unofficial results filter out early next week.

Jason Stearns, senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says "the situation is broadly stable. No militia in the east has said that it wants to undermine the election." But, he warns, "The biggest threat is urban unrest, rioting, and intimidation."

Despite all the problems, and potential for more, Mr. Bardou remains positive. "Even if the situation in Congo is very bad, it's not total darkness. There is hope."

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