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Archive for Monday, July 24, 2006

Congo relearns lessons of democracy

July 24, 2006

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— In a neighborhood where half-clad toddlers play in streets filled with garbage, Therese Olenga Kalonda stood in front of the crowd of Sunday churchgoers and told them how to change their lot.

"You have a vote, and it is free, and it is secret," she told families who had come to worship at a tin-roofed, open-air church. "If the person you vote in doesn't keep their promises, you can vote them out."

It was a basic lesson from Madame Therese, as she is known, a prominent women's rights activist who is running for parliament in Congo's elections Sunday. But it is an important one for the many people who cannot remember a free, multiparty election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

The last one was in 1965, and since then the country has known only dictators, competing militias and the aftermath of war.

If learning how to vote is simple, conducting the election will be far from it. Olenga is among 9,700 candidates running for 500 seats in the National Assembly. The ballot in Kinshasa, the capital, unfolds to six pages, each the size of a road map, with tiny, fuzzy pictures next to each contender's name.

The election has been postponed four times. Part of the difficulty is simply getting the ballots to polling stations scattered throughout Congo, a country about one-fourth the size of the U.S. with only 300 miles of paved roads.

It is the largest election the United Nations has tried to organize, with more than 26 million registered voters and 50,000 polling stations. It took 75 aircraft sorties to get the ballots - 1,810 tons of them - into the country.

"Given the DRC's history and the logistical challenges we face, many people thought that organizing these elections would be almost impossible," said Apollinaire Malu-Malu, the president of the Independent Electoral Commission. "And yet, I believe the country will be ready for this pivotal moment."

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