Voting ends in landmark Congo election

Monday, October 30, 2006

The final round of voting has ended in the first free elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in over forty years.

The runoff is between incumbent President Joseph Kabila and Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, who led a field of 33 candidates in the first round of polling held on July 30, but failed to achieve the required majority vote. The voting has been largely peaceful, though isolated incidents of violence and voting fraud have been reported.

Contestants Bemba (left) and Kabila, August 2006.
Credit: MONUC/Myiram Asmani/IRIN
Jean-Pierre Bemba Joseph Kabila
44 years old 35 years old
One of four Vice Presidents President
leads Movement for the Liberation of Congo leads People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy
polled 20% of vote in first round polled 44.8% in first round
Main support base in western Congo Main support base in eastern Swahili-speaking Congo
son of a prominent businessman, who was close to Mobutu Sese Seko. backed by Ugandan army during the war. retains considerable business interests. son of former President Laurent Kabila, grew up abroad, received wartime backing from Rwanda.

Polling day

Voting was largely peaceful, with isolated incidents of violence in the north-east. Two people were reported killed amidst protests over alleged irregularities in polling. Turnout is expected to be lower than in the last round.

Thunderstorms and a five-hour spell of rain dampened early morning voting in the western Bas Congo province and the capital Kinshasa.

Bemba supporters protested against alleged ballot-stuffing in Lisala, and looted polling stations and burnt ballot boxes in Bumba. Two people were reported killed and four others injured when "naval forces" and police fired on the protesters.

A Human Rights Watch observer estimated that between 15 to 25 thousand people were prevented from voting by Congolese army troops, who blockaded roads and demanded money from voters going to the polls, in the north-eastern Ituri district.

Polling was open between 6:00 a.m. local time and 5:00 p.m. (0500 GMT to 1600 GMT) in the west, and one hour earlier in the east. Polling was extended beyond the closing time in some areas.

80,000 police personnel and 17,000 U.N. peace-keepers backed by 2,000 E.U. troops were deployed to secure the polling. The peace-keepers staged "flag-marches" in Kinshasa and other cities.

Over 1,000 international and 40,000 Congolese observers monitored the elections in the 50,045 polling stations. Counting is to begin immediately, but provisional results are not expected before November 19.

Kinshasa was reported as "tense", with over 5,000 armed supporters of Kabila and 600 fighters loyal to Bemba reportedly present in the capital. Both Kabila and Bemba voted in Kinshasa, but did not speak to reporters. A joint statement issued by their parties called for people to vote "in a calm, orderly and peaceful manner".

Transition from war

Mineral rich Congo has remained largely undeveloped, despite possessing rich reserves of gold, diamonds, coltan and Uranium.

Following independence from Belgium, Congo underwent a turbulent political history, enduring a 32-year dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. The 1994 Rwandan genocide sparked strife in neighbouring Congo, and Sese Seko was overthrown by Laurent Kabila in the First Congo War.

Kabila was challenged by Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels, but drew on support from troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan. The resulting Second Congo War, the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, killed an estimated four million people and displaced another five million.

A peace accord was signed in 2002 and a transitional government set up, with Joseph Kabila as President and two of the rebel leaders, including Bemba as Vice Presidents. A new constitution was approved by referendum held in February this year and the first multi-party elections began on July 30, 2006.

A UN peace-keeping force, MUNOC has been deployed in Congo since 2000 and was charged with keeping security during the elections. The elections, funded by $460 million of international aid, are conducted by the Independent Electoral Commission.

Kabila has won the support of third and fourth placed candidates, Antoine Gizenga and Nzanga Mobutu - the son of Mobutu Sese Seko, following the first round of elections. Clashes between Kabila and Bemba supporters have left at least 23 people dead, following the announcement of the results of the last round of elections.