First step toward democracy: a five-hour wait in the sun

Voters in Congo registered this week, preparing for the first multiparty elections in four decades

Dressed in his best, if threadbare summer suit, waiting to register for his country's first multiparty elections in four decades, a 60-something farmer named Raphael Ukelo recalls previous elections: "You'd get into the voting room, and a very big man would say, 'Only take a green card - not a white one,' Mr. Ukelo recalls. "And if you didn't do it, oooh...." he says with a laugh. Choosing the green card meant voting for tyrannical President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Now this sprawling African nation aims to get the voting process right. Nationwide elections are slated for the Democratic Republic of Congo next year. Registration began on July 24 and will end this Sunday. Yet many obstacles remain. There's far more history here of kleptocracy than democracy. And in a country as large as Alaska and Texas combined - with few roads - electioneering involves a logistical effort as daunting as D-Day.

Still, many citizens see voting as integral to peace and economic revival in a land where up to four million people died during a 1998-2003 war.

"It's very important for building the country," says Leonie Uyewa Uzele, a diminutive mother of seven, who's just spent five hours in the broiling sun, waiting to register, with her youngest child strapped to her back. But she's willing to wait, if democracy means putting the war behind her. She says she once spent an entire month hiding inside her thatched-roof house to avoid rape or murder at the hands of marauding militias.

Mrs. Uzele is one of the 40,639 people who had registered in Bunia by last week. Officials expect some 1.6 million people - out of 6.5 million total population - to register in the country's remote Ituri province, one of the most violent areas in recent years. Congo's national population is roughly 60 million, and 28 million are expected to register.

As Uzele walks past the long line of people still waiting to register, she flashes her newly minted registration card - and a wide smile.

The mere fact that registration is occurring at all in the country's remote eastern provinces is a major feat. Six-wheel armored-personnel carriers, driven by UN peacekeepers, regularly rumble past the registration center. They hint at what it's taken to get this far. The war officially ended in 2003, but militias have continued to wreak havoc. The United Nations has 16,700 troops in Congo - more than in any other country. Ever since nine peacekeepers were killed in February not far from here, the UN has gotten more aggressive in battling militias. This has helped create enough calm for democracy to bud.

Foreign donors are providing nearly 90 percent of the $100 million budget for the election. Their money is funding, among other things, the 9,000 election kits being sent into the field - many of them flown by UN helicopter because it's too dangerous to drive.

Each kit - contained in a foot-locker sized metal box - has a laptop computer, a printer, a fingerprint scanner, a camera, and a power generator. In many towns, these are the first computers ever seen by residents. And the gas-powered generators are coveted. Eight have already been stolen.

In all, the 269 Bunia-area registration centers need $80,600 in fuel to run the generators, says John Ukunya, the top local election official. So far, he has received just $8,000 from the Kinshasa government. He's not sure if he'll get the rest.

It's these kinds of delays that have already postponed the vote, which was supposed to take place last June, but may not happen until June 2006.

Still, the process is already helping to revive Bunia. There hasn't been any postal delivery here in years because of the war. There's still no mail. But the independent electoral commission has repainted the town's old post office and moved in. Similarly, the empty offices of the national coffee company have been taken over. Now the building hums with the sound of a generator and 60 or so people waiting to register. Many don't have IDs, so they must bring five people to attest that they are Congolese - and that their parents are Congolese. Once confirmed, they walk out with an ID that includes a picture, their name, and a fingerprint.

As a trial run, the nation will vote on a new constitution Nov. 27. One provision would lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, which would allow 33-year-old Joseph Kabila - the current interim president - to run.

"Maybe this time, the voting will be better," says farmer Ukelo, recalling the old days. "Maybe...."

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