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The sprawling country tries to strengthen democracy and end ongoing instability.
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — In the final days of campaigning for Congo’s elections, only the second in more than 40 years, campaign trucks crisscross this dusty provincial capital, blasting music and bullhorns urging voters to support one of the about 20,000 candidates on the ballot.
While voters celebrate the prospect of a democratic vote, many fear this worn-torn country does not have the organizational skills — or the political will — to hold a credible election.
“The people working for the electoral commission are the same as those in 2006,” said Christian Badose, one of the tens of thousands of parliamentary candidates vying for 500 seats. “They didn’t prove they had the capacity to hold transparent elections.”
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Badose supports presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi, one of the top challengers of current president Joseph Kabila. Tshisekedi is known as the president’s most formidable opposition, and has already declared himself winner on Congolese radio. But without pollsters tallying public opinion, every camp, like Tshisekedi’s here in Goma, seems convinced that their candidate will win.
Kabila, largely expected to beat his divided opposition of 10 candidates, has been president since 2001 when he succeeded his father, Laurent, who was assassinated. In 2006, Kabila won Congo’s first democratic elections in four decades. But the vote was marred by violence, and critics say Kabila has failed to deliver on promises of peace and development.
Here in North Kivu, home to more than 3 million of the country’s 32 million registered voters and one of its most volatile provinces, makeshift parades march through the capital in support of another prominent presidential candidate, Vital Kamerhe, a former presidential ally and eastern native.
Kamerhe's supporters say they expect their man to win any fair vote. Any other outcome, they say, would be a clear sign of a rigged election.
“The people will protest,” says Bienfait Bishikwabo, who heads Kamerhe’s provincial campaign. “They want change, and they will rise up.”
Outside the election board offices, however, voters say lack of organization — not politics — is the biggest threat to Monday’s ballot. On his second day at the electoral commission, after almost five hours of waiting for a replacement voter card, would-be voter Cyprien Sumaili says he doesn’t think his region will have enough polling places — or skills — to hold a truly democratic election.
“I don’t think everyone will be able to vote,” he says in the commission yard, which is coated in the jutting black volcanic rock that covers much of this city. “The polling places are not sufficient for all the people who registered.”
Inside the offices, however, regional head Matthieu Ruchagoza says while he can’t speak for the rest of the nation, North Kivu is ready. He says ballots have been delivered to every remote corner of the province, a huge staff has been trained, and international and domestic observers are standing by.
“This includes very remote areas, where the roads are too rough to travel,” Ruchagoza says.
Other parts of the country have not fared as well, according to Agence France-Presse. The agency reports that as of Friday, nearly half the planes scheduled to deliver ballots to the remote regional voting centers were still grounded due to bad weather.
And for voters in Congo, the stakes are much higher than just a desire for a democratic vote.
Roughly the size of Western Europe, this country has been plagued by war, famine and a massive displacement crisis for decades. For some, new leadership could bring security.
Others say the conflict has at least slowed under Kabila’s rule, and new leadership could spark a new war.
In a crowd of Kamerhe supporters on a Goma sidewalk, Deborah Musafari says if her candidate loses, she will take to the streets in protest. But her excitement over the prospect of change is tempered by fear of a new war.
Kabile’s 2008 power-sharing agreement was not entirely successful at integrating the many armed groups in the countryside, but it has reduced the conflict significantly and many militias now support the current president.
“Some people say if their candidate doesn’t win they will go back to fighting in the bush,” she says. “We don’t want another rebellion.”
The most recent war in Congo — known as Africa’s World War because of the many neighboring countries that have been involved — began in the late 1990s after millions of refugees poured out of neighboring Rwanda, following the 1994 genocide in which about 1 million ethnic Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days. Unprecedented amounts of international aid poured into Congo — then called Zaire — and partially funded the growth of militant groups bent on re-taking Rwanda from across the border.
In response, home-grown militias sprung up out of villages. Six other nations joined the fray and over the next decade, an estimated 5 million people were killed, mostly from famine and disease. And although the war technically ended in 2003, and again in 2008 with Kabila’s power-sharing agreement, mass rapes, looting and armed militias still terrorize villages, particularly in the eastern countryside.
Despite the fear of renewed violence, voters and candidates say they have hope that next week’s elections will be peaceful and productive.
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