Voters in Democratic Republic of Congo went to the polls today in the central African country's second election after more than four decades of dictatorship and a series of wars that left millions dead.
Eleven men are running for president, including the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, and almost 19,000 candidates are vying for some 500 seats in parliament. The ballot is more than 50 pages long and looks like a tabloid newspaper.
One election official in a polling station in the capital Kinshasa said in this district alone there are just under 1,000 candidates for parliament.
Just getting ballots to the 63,000 polling stations across the country has been a challenge — Congo is practically the size of Western Europe, with extremely poor roads. It's covered by the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. The country has had to borrow dozens of helicopters from neighboring countries to transport election material. Some were grounded today because it's the rainy season so, of course, it was raining.
"This is a difficult country to hold elections," said Anita Vandenbeld, the Congo country director for the National Democratic Institute, which has been working with political parties here.
"It's a very large country and there are a number of logistical problems. Added to that is the fact that there has been in some ways lack of communication between the political parties from the electoral commission, which if you combine it with the logistical problems, can create suspicion. We saw that with the violence that has occurred."
The lead-up to the vote has seen hundreds of violent attacks, most by the country's security forces against opponents of incumbent President Kabila. Over the weekend, at least nine people died and more than 80 were wounded in the capital, Kinshasa when the president's republican guard fired into the crowds.
On Monday, in the neighborhood where Etienne Tshisekedi, Kabila's main challenger, lives, people lined up to vote starting at six in the morning. The scene was peaceful, though chaotic for some.
Clothilde Bawota, who is 51, has already stopped at five different voting stations looking for her name on the registration list, but it's not there.
"What can I do," she said. "I'm also a citizen and I need to vote."
For 19-year-old Maryous Ntumba, it's his first time voting. He said he can barely remember the country's last elections in 2006, when militias fought deadly street battles in Kinshasa after Kabila won in a runoff.
Maryous hopes it will be different this time.
"History has changed. The world and technology have evolved with science. We don't want war here in the DRC, like what happened in Libya or Cote d'Ivoire," Maryous said.
The average Congolese makes less than a dollar a day; the United Nations actually named Congo the least developed country in the world this year. That's why Maryous said he's voting for Etienne Tshisekedi. Maryous wants change, and he said wants to help be part of that change; he's studying for his law degree.
"Because in our country, we have a problem with human rights," Maryous said. "There are a lot of people who've been killed here. This is why I'm studying law, to defend my country.
But scratch below the surface and you quickly see how these elections could lead to more killing.
Maryous said he's ready to die for his country, if the elections don't go well.
The tension was evident at another voting station on the other side of Kinshasa. There, supporters of Tshisekedi accused election workers of stuffing ballots. They attacked him, kicking him repeatedly in the head, until police intervened. As the police led the man away, the crowd chanted after him, "100-percent thief!"
This wasn't the only case of election-related violence today. In Congo's second city, Lubumbashi, at least nine people were reported killed. And voting stations were burned in the capital of Western Kasai province.
All this doesn't bode well for December 6th, the day provisional results are slated to be announced.
"I'm worried about violence," said Glody Mfunkani Diasilua, a 19-year-old from Kinshasa. He's also voting for the first time today, part of the first generation to grow up in a Congo where voting, not dictatorship, is the norm.
"We don't want after elections people die," Glody said. "It's not good for us, we need peace. This country will be ours. I hope that the future will become better than today."
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