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Congo Readies for Historic Elections

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

This weekend, the Democratic Republic of Congo holds its first free elections in 46 years. The country has suffered a string of brutal conflicts.


In 2002, then President Joseph Kabila signed an accord ending a multinational civil war begun when his father seized power in 1997. That war claimed more than four million lives and devastated much of central Africa.

For more on the elections, I spoke with Colin Stewart, co-director of the Carter Center's Democratic Republic of Congo field office. He says he'll have his hands full this weekend monitoring polling stations in Kinshasa, where he joined us via cell phone.

Mr. COLIN STEWART (Co-director, Carter Center's Democratic Republic of Congo Field Office): The logistical challenges of these elections far outstrip anything else that I've been involved in. We're concerned that the electoral commission, while it has been making a very good effort on these elections, has still got a few loose ends as we're heading into the election, certainly in terms of perception, in terms of transparency. We're concerned that high levels of distress that already exist in this country could be exacerbated.

GORDON: I know there is a concern. We have seen, unfortunately, a growing amount of violence in relation to political rallies in the country. What of Election Day and possible violence then?

Mr. STEWART: Well, it's always a concern. Generally, I'd have to say that what we've seen through the campaign period, while it's more (unintelligible) been disturbing, on the other hand, it hasn't been quite as bad as we might have feared. The general consensus seems to be that if they're going to be big problems, they'll come after the election rather than on Election Day.


GORDON: Joseph Kabila is the frontrunner at this point for president. He is the son of the former president. And there is concern that there had been strong-arm tactics used to get people to vote or at least ante up on that side. There's also concern that there has not been enough opportunity for people to learn about other candidates.

This is a familiar last name; often we see that here in the United States. If you know a last name, you tend to cast a vote. Are your at concerned about what many people would call an ignorant vote?

Mr. STEWART: Well, that's certainly something that we've highlighted in all of our reports. Especially in a place where you're holding elections for the first time, it's very important that you have a long and intensive campaign of civic education.

And as I mentioned before, this is a massive country with very little infrastructure. And the efforts that have been made on civic education, while, you know, in some areas it's been extremely high quality, it just hasn't really got the coverage that would've been necessary for a country like this. So, yes, we are concerned.

People are going to participate in these elections without a full understanding of what they're doing.

GORDON: Give us a sense of the size of the election, the numbers of people you anticipate going to the polls. And if you will, give us a sense of what you've been hearing from people who I would suspect on some level are very excited about being able to cast their vote.

Mr. STEWART: Absolutely. Well, this is a country of an estimated 60 million people. Of course, there's no accurate census, but they've registered about 25 million eligible voters. Yeah, there's generally a high level of enthusiasm. People are excited about elections because they're really anxious to move on in their lives, to get past this period of war that they've been through and to actually get an effective government that's going to manage the country in the interest of the people.

I think everybody's impatient for that. And that's a good thing in terms of participation in the elections, but the other edge to that sword is the people will have high expectations the day after the election. And we know from experience that it takes a long time to turn a country like this around.

GORDON: Here is, I guess, a $64,000 question. And that is whether or not anyone can really bring stability to a region that has been so tenuous in its peace for so long.

Mr. STEWART: Well, that's a very good question. I'm not really qualified to answer that. I mean, Kabila, you're right, is well known. But he's also known for having been the one who brought about the current peace. He brought about the negotiations that led to the situation that we're not in: first, a referendum on a constitution, and now these elections.

So a lot of the population credits him with that. Many of the other candidates are former belligerents in the previous war. And this country is going to be a big challenge to govern no matter who gets that job.

GORDON: Let me ask you, finally, in relation to America's role in all of this, the Bush administration. When you're talking about instability or stability, often it is - and we've seen the United Nations keep a close watch and will have a close watch on this election; it said that the election upwards to $400 million. How important is it for outside entities to be behind and help fortify whomever wins the election and whoever takes office?

Mr. STEWART: Well, I think certainly on one level it is very important. I mean, these elections could not have taken place without considerable outside contributions, and the United States is certainly one of those major players. These are the most expensive elections that were ever held with international assistance. And the United Nations peacekeeping mission that's here is spending millions upon millions of dollars just moving equipment and supplies around the country for these elections.

But it's a bit of a double-edged sword. Because, you know, this country has a terrible history of foreign interference not necessarily for the good. And so when you look back to the colonial time, people don't have particularly positive memories of foreign involvement. So there's a lot of mistrust of anybody who isn't Congolese.

And so foreign actors here have to tread lightly. They're very much needed to help support the system, but at the same time they don't want to be too vocal; otherwise there will be a bit of a backlash.

GORDON: Well, certainly the eyes of the world will be on this election. Colin Stewart is co-director of the Carter Center's Democratic Republic of Congo field office. He joins us via phone from Kinshasa. And we thank you very much.

Mr. STEWART: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.