Congo calm after historic vote ... for now

Congolese are enjoying a tense calm as election results trickle in from across the war-torn country.

The Democratic Republic of Congo lived up to its name on Sunday when voters turned out in the millions to take part in the vast, war-torn central African country's first multiparty vote in more than 45 years.

Polling day was largely orderly and peaceful, much to the delight of the international community, which spent $432 million on the polls and ploughed $6 billion into Congo since 2002.

But after Congo's 25.7 million voters have spoken, it remains to be seen whether their political leaders will listen, and there are fears of a dangerous split between the country's eastern and western regions.

Official results are not expected until Aug. 29, but early indications are that the incumbent, 35-year-old Joseph Kabila, is leading. Across the restive east, Mr. Kabila is credited with ending the bloodshed that cost the lives of 3.9 million people. He is heading for a landslide victory here.

But in the west, he is being pushed hard by his strongest challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba, the 44-year-old son of a wealthy businessman and former leader of a rebel militia. Mr. Bemba has loyal troops and has threatened to "set the country ablaze" if he thinks the polls are rigged.

"This east-west divide can be scary," says a United Nations official on condition of anonymity. "The catastrophic scenario would be Kabila winning the election in the first round with big support in the east and little in the west. If that happens the west will blow."

To avoid a runoff, Kabila must win more than 50 percent in this first round, otherwise the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) says, a second-round vote will take place Oct. 29. Kabila is clearly leading but may not garner enough votes to win outright. "It looks like Kabila did better than expected in many places," says Jason Stearns, senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "With 70-80 percent overall in the east, he would need to get less than 20-30 percent in the west to lose in the first round."

In the days immediately after the vote, as provisional results were posted outside the 53,000 polling stations, the country remained unexpectedly calm. Armed militia groups still pose a threat to civilians throughout much of the east, and few observers expected the elections to go as smoothly as they did.

Polling was disrupted in Mbuji-Mayi, Congo's second-largest city and stronghold of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, whose supporters enforced his call for a boycott with stones and a firebomb. But fears that rebels in the east would launch attacks on polling day were not realized and there was no replay of the rioting and unrest that marred the campaign period in the capital, Kinshasa, in the west.

"We are amazed by how well these elections have gone," says UN mission spokesperson Sylvie van den Wildenberg from the eastern town of Bukavu. "The Congolese have expressed themselves democratically. Now I hope the politicians who lose will respect that democracy."

There is a lot at stake for the international community and there will be pressure on all groups to accept the results of what is expected to be termed a free and fair election. However, opposition groups that claim the election was a sham rigged by the international community in favor of Kabila are unlikely to accept a first-round Kabila win, and their supporters have threatened to take to the streets in protest.

There was a taste of what may come in the capital Kinshasa last week when a pro-Bemba rally ended in gunfire, the death of eight civilians, and the lynching of three policemen.

To prevent a repeat of such scenes, the new president will have to bring the opposition groups into the political process, but Congolese politics is not known for its inclusiveness.

At his final campaign rally in Kinshasa on Friday, Kabila told supporters, "Elections are going to put an end to the chaos that we have suffered since 1960 and start the process of rebuilding the country." That will only happen if the losers accept the results.

Many Congolese voters will agree with Gaspard Bulaze, a 56-year-old father who was still mourning the death of his eldest son at the hands of rebels a few months ago as he stood in line to vote on Sunday. "I want the new president to bring peace," said Mr Bulaze. "That is all, because with peace everything is possible."

International effort

• 17,600 UN troops and police from 58 countries are safeguarding Congo's elections. This is the largest-ever UN peacekeeping mission. The European Union is contributing another 2,000 troops.

• The international community has spent $6 billion in Congo since a peace deal in 2002, and $432 million on the election, $320 million of which came from the EU.

• At the end of June, the UN Security Council extended the peacekeeping mission's mandate until the end of September 2006.

Sources: UN, MONUC, German Foreign Ministry

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