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Congo Prepares for First Free Presidential Election

Along with President Joseph Kabila, son of murdered former President Laurent Kabila, 32 people will vie for the presidency during the month-long campaign ending with a July 30 vote.

“This is the biggest and the most important election the U.N. has ever supported,” Ali-Diabacte, the U.N. official organizing the vote from Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, told The Washington Post.

About 80 U.N. volunteers are helping to disburse electoral kits to Congo’s 10 provinces, the volunteer program reported. The country, home to more than 62 million people, covers a swath of central Africa the size of Western Europe.

Many officials and observers have expressed concern that such a large country, with so little infrastructure and lawless areas still under rebel control following a civil war from 1998 to 2003, can conduct a fair election.

Flights from South Africa arrive in Kinshasa daily carrying materials including ballot papers, ballot boxes and privacy shields, the U.N. Volunteer program reported. The materials then are trucked to villages and cities throughout the country.

Election monitors from around the world also are expected to descend on Congo in the coming weeks. In March, the Carter Center in Atlanta set up a monitoring office in Kinshasa and has plans to send a team of 60 observers ahead of the election.

The election could prove to be a turning point for Congo, a former Belgian colony that has suffered at the hands of one brutal dictator after another since its colonization.

Throughout the 1900s Belgian King Leopold II ruled Congo with an iron fist, violently quelling rebellions using a force of security agents and leaving millions dead in his wake.

In 1965, following the country’s independence and the assassination of newly named prime minister and democratic hopeful Patrice Lumumba, the country’s former military general Joseph Mobutu took power in a coup.

Mobutu renamed Congo Zaire, renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, or all powerful warrior, and consolidated power under his rule for 32 years. Under Mobutu, Congo descended into poverty, the country’s vast diamond and mineral resources depleted and the self-imposed leader expropriated businesses and any money-making enterprises claiming ownership for himself and his allies.

A coup ousted Mobutu in 1997 led by rebel leader Laurent Kabila, and in 1998 fueled by Rwandan and Ugandan rebel opposition to Kabila’s rule, a five-year civil war ensued. The war drew in six African nations and killed an estimated 4 million people in what many analysts have termed Africa’s world war.

Kabila’s son, who gained power after his father’s death in 2001, now is part of a coalition government charged with steering Congo out of its bloody past and toward a peaceful future.

A national vote in December 2005 approving the country’s new constitution marked the first step.

“This is all new territory,” U.S. Ambassador Roger Meece told the Washington Post. “This is an election the Congolese people have been waiting for a long time. And it is of enormous importance to the overall stability of the continent.”

Opposition parties still fear the vote could descend into violence despite the presence of some 17,000 U.N. troops in the east near the Rwandan and Ugandan borders, and the recent arrival of another 2,000 European Union troops in Congo and neighboring Gabon. Those forces were mandated to ensure the stability of the election process, according to a U.N. interview with Maj. Gen. Christian Damay, the troops’ French force commander.

Some groups have asked the government to postpone the election for further preparations, but Kabila has dismissed the idea saying voting must take place July 30.

Groups in the region say a fair vote is possible despite the many obstacles.

“While there are very serious logistical challenges to the conduct of elections in a country as vast and under-resourced as the DRC, the center is encouraged by the seriousness and commitment with which the CEI [Independent Electoral Commission] is carrying out its work around the country,” Carter Center monitors wrote in a June report from the country. “With the strong support of the United Nations and the rest of the international community, and given the experience of the successful referendum in December 2005, The Carter Center is confident that the electoral schedule announced by the CEI can successfully be met.”

In the wake of the fast-approaching vote, several political parties have requested talks to go over the organization of the election, which includes more than 10,000 candidates running in local and legislative races, and to ensure the credibility of the vote. President Kabila has agreed to a meeting, but has yet to set a date.

As campaigning begins, candidates are searching for ways to reach the millions of potential voters.

In a bid to consolidate political capital in a country where, according to a Reuters report Wednesday, “no one ethnic group represents more than 5 percent of the population,” Kabila — the leading candidate — and several other candidates have formed coalitions.

Over the weekend, Kabila finalized the formation of the Alliance of the Presidential Majority (AMP), a group of “men and women from the north and the south, the east and the west,” his election coordinator announced at a recent rally, Reuters reported.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, the country’s vice president, formed the Rally of Congolese Nationalists (RENACO), a group backed by former Mobutu supporters.

CODECO, the Coalition of Congolese Democrats, is the brainchild of Pierre Pay-Pay, the former Central Bank governor from the east now running for president.

“[I]t is logical that, in such a large country, where there are over 260 political parties [with such contracted political bases], they have to form these coalitions,” Jason Stearns, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

No matter who becomes president July 30, the election itself will stand as a milepost to Kabila’s stated desire to move his country toward stability.

In February 2001, the newly appointed then 29-year-old told the NewsHour his vision for Congo included democratic elections.

“For us, the priority is to see the foreign armies of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi move out of … the Congo. Then Congolese dialogue will start … then the nation will move forward to a transition with elections — democratic elections — that will be observed by the whole international community,” Kabila said.

Though armed groups from Rwanda and Uganda remain in parts of Congo, one step in Kabila’s vision, the preparation for free elections, appears to be on the horizon.

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