Hope and Fear as Congo Votes

When presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba showed up at an election rally in Bukavu, in the eastern Congo, he brought along a chief from a pygmy tribe to appear on the dais with him. A former rebel leader and accused war criminal, Bemba was seeking to dispel rumors that his fighters had cannibalized pygmies during their years in the jungle. "We see you brought your own lunch," shouted a heckler to general amusement among the crowd, including many supporters of Bemba's rival, the interim president Laurent Kabila. And when Bemba asked the crowd if there was anything he could do for them, some shouted back, "Don't eat us."

It's been a down and dirty campaign on both sides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country's first free elections in over 40 years began their second and final round today, the culmination of the United Nations' most ambitious peacekeeping and democracy-building exercise. The U.N. has spent half a billion dollars on the elections alone, on top of another $1.2 billion a year in peacekeeping funds to support 19,000 troops and police from more than 100 nations. Results could take a week. If the runoff between Bemba and Kabila leads to a peaceful transition to a new government, it will be one of the U.N.'s greatest victories; if the ballot disintegrates into violence, and civil war resumes here, it will be perhaps its most spectacular failure.

The 1998-2003 civil war in the Congo, involving half a dozen neighboring countries as well as a dozen internal armed groups, cost four million lives and proved to be the bloodiest conflict anywhere since World War II. An uneasy and incomplete peace has reigned with U.N. intervention for three years, while the warring parties joined a national unity government, with Kabila as president and Bemba as one of four vice presidents. The first round of elections was finally held on July 30, after six postponements.

Bemba's side hasn't refrained from low blows either. His well-heeled campaign's leitmotif has been "elect a true Congolese," suggesting this wasn't the case with Kabila, who grew up in exile in East Africa when his father was a rebel leader; Kabila speaks English and Swahili, rather than the dominant French and Lingala languages. The U.N. created a High Media Authority (HAM) to clamp down on hate speech, and the Independent Elections Commission (CIE) to oversee the electoral process. During the first round campaign, Bemba's followers ransacked and destroyed the HAM's headquarters, savagely gang raping a female HAM worker, and burning two policemen alive. And they've bitterly denounced the CIE for calling the first round fair; Bemba got 20 percent to Kabila's 45 percent. Election commissioners had to be escorted from their offices under U.N. guard during the last round.

It was the biggest U.N.-supervised election in history, involving 260,000 election workers in all. The U.N. and the CIE distributed ballot materials to 50,000 polling places, an incredible logistical feat in a country the size of Western Europe with only 300 miles of paved roads—all of them badly maintained. Electronic voter-registration machines went out by plane and helicopter, and then by river boat, canoe, bicycle and foot. A U.N. airfleet, essentially the second largest airline in sub-Saharan Africa, transported an army of workers, along with electric generators and even fuel supplies to power them.

People responded enthusiastically to the first round, with 70 percent of the 26.5 million registered voters turning out in what most international observers agreed was a generally fair and free poll, with some logistical problems but no major fraud. That finding incensed Bemba's supporters, who are strongest in the western part of the country, and especially in the country's capital, Kinshasa. Kabila's supporters, on the other hand, were furious that he didn't win the required 50 percent immediately, and only intense diplomatic pressure on the president persuaded him to submit to another round. Even so, when results were announced, fighting broke out between Bemba's militias and the president's personal armed guard, involving tanks and heavy weapons. Troops from MONUC, as the U.N. mission here is known by its French acronym [United Nations Mission in the Congo] intervened, but 31 people died in three days of violence.

That outbreak casts a long shadow over today's vote, especially since both candidates have hedged their promises to abide by the results. The CIE tried to get them to sign a joint declaration supporting a peaceful outcome, but they sent their party leaders to do so instead. And a planned meeting between them for the same purpose fell through this week.  Torrential downpours in Kinshasa on Election Day saw voters wading through flooded roads to reach polling places. "We have a lot of hope that elections will change everything," said Aime Adgi, a social worker, after he cast his vote in the Ndjili neighborhood of the capital, and pressed an inky thumb onto the voting register to prove his identity. "But it depends on the winner, and whether he'll accept it." People went to extraordinary lengths to vote, in some parts of the country traveling for a day by foot on jungle paths to reach polling places. At the Lycee San Germain polling place, next to a church, a boy no more than six pushed his father in his wheelchair. Stefan Mahfuda, 21, a university student, helped his illiterate mother, Cecile, to cast her ballot in the privacy of a cardboard voting booth. "I'm proud to be voting for the first time for a new Congo," she said.

A poor turnout particularly in Kinshasa will favor the incumbent, who is weakest in his own capital. But will the challenger lose gracefully? "I am a democrat," Bemba said before second-round balloting began. "Losing and winning elections are the results in a democracy of the will of the people of Congo, and I am of course willing to accept results." But in a later interview with NEWSWEEK, Bemba denounced alleged fraud in the first round. The second round "must be more perfect ... otherwise it would be terrible, the people of Congo will not accept another fraud." That of course leaves open the possibility of refusing to accept the results. When asked by international observers how he would know whether the election was fair, he said, according to one participant, "I'll know it was fair because if it is, I'll win." Kabila has refused nearly all interviews, and even bowed out of a televised debate last week with his opponent when it appeared he would have to face him directly, in French, a language he does not speak well. But Western diplomats have given him credit for agreeing to the transition process that brought fighting to an end, and to power sharing in the unity government.