Congo presidential vote heads for runoff

August 21, 2006|By EDMUND SANDERS | EDMUND SANDERS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A landmark presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo is headed for a runoff this fall between two former rebel leaders seeking to lead Africa's second-largest nation, officials said yesterday.

But a violent clash during the evening between militias loyal to the two candidates heightened fears of renewed violence.

Joseph Kabila, the transitional president, led the count from the July 30 race with 45 percent of the 16.9 million ballots cast, according to preliminary results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of Kabila's vice presidents and his chief rival, garnered 20 percent. The rest of the vote was divided among the other 31 candidates.

Since neither man won more than 50 percent, a second round of voting is slated for October.

Although several candidates have complained about irregularities in the voting and ballot-counting, commission officials said the election was orderly and fair. International observers generally echoed those sentiments.

Political analysts had predicted a runoff in the presidential race, given the crowded field of candidates who split the electorate along tribal and geographic lines.

Kabila dominated the vote in his native eastern provinces, while Bemba won in Kinshasa, the capital city, and regions of the west, where he was born.

Because both men control large private militias, many observers feared that if either one lost in the first round, he might be tempted to challenge the results with force. The candidates' security forces clashed a few times during the campaign, including one incident in July that left at least three people dead.

Yesterday evening, as Bemba was preparing to meet with journalists and give a television address in Kinshasa, members of Kabila's 15,000-man presidential guard reportedly exchanged gunfire with Bemba's fighters near the electoral commission offices. By nightfall, the streets were empty except for soldiers; sporadic gunfire could be heard into the night.

The much-anticipated announcement of the election results was delayed into the early morning hours yesterday because of security concerns.

American and United Nations officials have issued stern warnings against candidates who might attempt to act as spoilers. About 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 1,000 European Union troops are on high alert, particularly in the capital and in the volatile northeastern region.

July's vote was the first free election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire and, before that, the Belgian Congo, in more than 40 years.

The mineral-rich Central African nation endured a 32-year dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. His downfall was followed by a civil war that exploded into a regional conflict involving 11 African nations and killing nearly 4 million people, mostly from disease and hunger.

In 2003, an internationally brokered transitional government took control with Kabila at the helm.

The runoff is expected to heighten tensions between Kabila and Bemba.

Kabila is the son of Laurent Kabila, the famed rebel who ousted Mobutu.

Bemba, whose family grew rich in telecommunications businesses during the former regime, fought against the elder Kabila during the civil war with backing from neighboring Uganda.

Bemba and Joseph Kabila ran hard-fought campaigns full of ugly personal attacks.

Bemba supporters lampooned his 35-year-old opponent as inexperienced and inept, questioning his "Congoleseness" by claiming he was not the true son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001.

Kabila supporters, in turn, accused Bemba, 43, and his soldiers of resorting to cannibalism during the civil war.

Although they've shared power in the transitional government, the men had not spoken to one another for more than six months before the election.

"There's no warmth between them," said Yves Kisonbe, a legal adviser to Bemba.

Both men have vowed not to resort of violence.

The race to forge alliances is good news for some losing presidential candidates, such as Oscar Kashala, a doctor from Massachusetts who recently returned to Congo to run for president, and Antoine Gizenga, 80, a longtime opposition politician who was the oldest candidate in the race. Kabila and Bemba are expected to court the losing candidates in the coming weeks.

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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