INSPIRED by last year's success of Eastern Europeans at overthrowing dictators, many Zaireans appear to be running out of patience with their own government. ``People are suffering,'' says Ampole Donatien, an auto repairman in Kinshasa, who earns $25 a month - barely enough for a family to survive. ``We're hungry. We don't have enough clothes. We want a change.''
Unless President Mobutu Sese Seko lives up to his promise to allow party politics to replace one-party rule, Zairean contacts and diplomats predict major political violence in this tropical country, Africa's second-largest state.
When Mobutu came to power in 1965, he brought calm to a country torn by civil war. But after 25 years of one-man rule, the economy has slipped backward.
Potentially one of Africa's richest states, Zaire has huge mineral, agricultural, and energy resources. After the per capita gross national product grew from $170 to $430 between 1967 to 1980, it has fallen back to $150. Dissatisfaction with rising food prices prompted street demonstrations. Four people were reported killed here earlier this month in clashes with police during a protest.
In April, Mobutu acknowledged the growing opposition to his rule. He held a series of public meetings, asking people to air their grievances. They did, but without the flattery he was accustomed to hearing. The result: On April 24, he announced his acceptance of multiparty rule in Zaire. At first, he limited the number of new parties to three, but later he removed all limits.
Though more than 100 parties have formed in the past few months, only about five are considered strong enough to make any real contest of presidential and parliamentary elections.
``People are no longer interested in [Mobutu's] one-party system, because they didn't see any benefits from it,'' says a Zairean teacher. If the president wins next year's anticipated election by rigging, as he has been accused of doing in the past, ``I'm sure there will be more strikes, and riots,'' the teacher adds.
A diplomat agrees. ``If he [Mobutu] doesn't realize the jig's up, I think we're going to have violence.'' But, the diplomat adds, ``I think he's doing all he can to stay in power.''
``He can't conceive of Zaire without him as head of state,'' says a Western resident here with ties to Mobutu. ``He's not motivated by wealth, he's motivated by power.''
In nearly a quarter of a century of the MPR being in power, ``there have been some errors,'' says Udjuu Ongwakebi Untube N'Singa, head of the national office of the ruling Popular Movement of the Revolution Party (MPR). He acknowledges that productivity in Zaire today is ``practically nil,'' that ``we have often neglected agriculture,'' and that government corruption and abuse of human rights has existed.
``There was often much abuse by certain [government] agencies, by certain agents - an excess of zeal, arbitrary arrests.'' he says. ``But it was never ... systematic state policy.'' The party is admitting its mistakes, getting fresh leaders, and asking the people to ``give us another chance,'' he adds.
So far, however, Mobutu has prohibited campaigning by his political opponents. Some opposition leaders say Mobutu is paying large sums of money to any willing political opposition figures to try to buy their loyalty.
The president's announced intention to allow multiparty politics in Zaire ``is a game,'' says a Zairean employee of a government enterprise. ``I'm pessimistic. Nothing will change.''
Except for Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party (UDPS) and long-time Mobutu critic, most opposition leaders have held key posts in Mobutu's government.
``Those who are in power today and those who will come tomorrow are birds of the same feather,'' says an auto mechanic in Kinshasa.
But the head of the opposition Democratic and Social Christian Party (PDSC) claims he represents new thinking.
``It's true I worked with Mobutu'' in various key posts, says PDSC presidential candidate Songo Amba Joseph Ileo. But, he contends, even within Mobutu's ``dictatorial'' party, ``there were people who were not in agreement with Mobutu and who made their objections known, but were not heard.''
As president, Mr. Ileo says, he would reduce Zaire's staggering budget deficits by making sure that ``all state revenues go into the state coffers ... and not into the pockets of certain individuals ... which is happening now.'' Asked if he meant that Mobutu is corrupt, he replied: ``That is known. The corruption starts at the top.''
Ileo wants a new constitution and a bicameral legislature to replace the current unicameral body. He also says that if parliamentary elections were held before presidential elections, the parliament could be sure the presidential vote was fair.
``We demand that the [Mobutu regime] regional and local officials [who will supervise the elections] be replaced by neutral officials to ensure the impartiality of elections,'' Ileo says. He also wants international observers to be present.
Though legally barred from campaigning until passage of a new electoral law, officials of the president's party and of the leading opposition parties have begun fanning out into the interior to inform voters about their choices.
But Zaire is vast. Roads are poor. Telephone communications are terrible. Air travel and arduous overland trips are required to reach the people. The campaign will be expensive. And opposition parties, which are worried that the government will allow only a short official campaign period, must reach far-flung rural voters to make their case. (See story at right.)
According to the nongovernmental Zairean League of Human Rights, though security and military forces have been more restrained, at least 100 members of political parties have been arrested since April, including some at opposition political rallies banned by the government. And some of the political activists have been tortured. says Mwamba wa Ba Mulamba, in charge of communications for the league.
One young man showed league staffers lashes he had suffered in prison until he bribed his way out recently. Others were tortured by confinement in ``cells filled with a few inches of water,'' says Mr. Mwamba. The league's letters to the government have gone unanswered, he says.
Mwamba also pointed to the alleged massacre by government security officials in May of university students who were demonstrating in Lumbambashi in southern Zaire. According to Belgian reporter Collete Braeckman of the French daily Le Soir, at least two dozen students were killed. The government says only one student was killed.
Since April, Zaire has seen a proliferation of independent newspapers, mostly ones critical of Mobutu's regime in terms that were considered treasonous just months ago.