KINSHASA, Congo—The climax of Congo's long-awaited presidential election—the first free vote in this big, battered central African country in more than four decades—hasn't exactly been the stuff of civics textbooks.
For one thing, the top two candidates, incumbent Joseph Kabila and former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba, maintain formidable personal armies, holdovers from their involvement in Congo's recent civil war. In August, as results from the first round of voting were announced, the armies squared off in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, killing 23 people in three days of fighting.
Ahead of Sunday's runoff, Kinshasa, a decrepit riverside city of 9 million people, remains on edge. With their armies still stationed within striking distance of each other, the candidates have not ventured outside the city or made many public appearances. Kabila declined this week to debate Bemba face to face, and Bemba canceled a major rally on Friday for fear that the crowds could spark unrest.
It's an uneasy finish to a yearlong campaign that's intended to close the book on decades of war, dictatorship and corruption in a country that some have described as a hole in the heart of Africa.
Its natural resources ruthlessly plundered by Belgium's King Leopold a century ago—and later by the homegrown kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko—the vast country formerly known as Zaire is now one of the poorest in the world. In 1997, the coup that overthrew Mobutu plunged Congo into a civil war that eventually drew in the armies of six neighboring countries.
Four million people are believed to have died because of the conflict, mostly from disease and hunger. A 2002 peace agreement installed a transitional government and paved the way for this year's elections, which are being overseen by 18,000 United Nations troops, the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world.
Two thousand of those troops—along with an additional 1,100 soldiers from a European Union force—are stationed in Kinshasa to safeguard Sunday's election and the counting of votes, which is expected to last several days.
Both Kabila and Bemba have pledged to honor the result. But neither has reduced his armed forces. Kabila is believed to control about 6,500 soldiers in Kinshasa alone, Bemba about 600.
"It's a fairly explosive situation," said Jason Stearns of the International Crisis Group, a research agency that studies global conflict. "I don't think the international community has been energetically engaged in safeguarding Kinshasa to prevent violence from breaking out. The military situation hasn't changed."
Kabila is the heavy favorite, having won 45 percent of the vote in July's first round from a field of nearly three dozen candidates. Kabila's father led the coup that toppled Mobutu but was himself assassinated in 2001, and within days the 29-year-old Kabila was installed as the world's youngest head of state.
He's credited with steering Congo through the peace process and enjoys strong support in eastern Congo, the base of the war.
But in Kinshasa the shy, socially awkward president is regarded with suspicion.
He's endured charges from Bemba's campaign that he's "foreign" because he's backed by Western governments and was raised in neighboring Tanzania. Because of his upbringing, he doesn't speak Lingala, the native tongue of western Congo, and is shaky in French, the language of political life.
The comparison with Bemba couldn't be starker. Built like an offensive lineman, the warlord-turned-businessman who made a fortune in mobile phones tosses out bon mots in Lingala and French with equal ease. One of his campaign slogans is "100 percent Congolese."
Diplomats in Kinshasa have tried to soften the enmity between Bemba and Kabila, who have met just twice since the August showdown. But the tense relationship, coupled with security concerns, has kept either man from engaging the other directly. The campaign has been much more about personality than about ideas.
"You can't have everything in the first time," said Ross Mountain, the U.N. mission's No. 2 official. "It would have been nice if there was more opportunity (for political debate), but given the tensions, there's obviously a balance you have to strike."
The election is critical for the region, Mountain said, because a well-governed Congo could promote stability in the nine countries with which it shares borders. In the east, holdouts from an array of militias once backed by countries such as Rwanda and Uganda continue to terrorize civilians.
"It's very hard to think of how Africa could be stable with an unstable Congo," Mountain said.
The elections have been financed by donor countries at a cost of more than $500 million. Congo is roughly the size of Western Europe, traversed by only a few hundred miles of paved roads, so ballots and other election materials have been distributed throughout the country by every available means—helicopters, trucks, dugout canoes and foot.
In parts of the heavily forested east, some voters traveled distances of more than 10 miles to cast ballots in July. Still, 70 percent of more than 25 million registered voters turned up for the first free elections that most had ever seen.
In Kinshasa, the challenges of rebuilding the country are apparent everywhere. In the rundown neighborhood of Kingabwa, mountains of trash line the dirt roads that turn to impassable muck when it rains, which is often. Cholera and other diseases brew in the puddles. Few people can find regular work.
Most people here support Bemba.
"If we elect Bemba and nothing changes, we can send him out," said Marie-Catherine Botamba, 40, a vegetable-seller. "In a democracy you can do that."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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