MBUJI-MAYI, Congo – Election officials opened dozens of polling stations Monday for a second day in the stronghold of a boycotting Congo politician, giving voters another chance to cast ballots after violence kept them from voting in historic elections a day earlier, officials said.
Amid stepped-up security, authorities reopened 172 polling stations in the central diamond-mining city of Mbuji-Mayi, where supporters of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi are believed to have burned polling stations and voting materials during Sunday's watershed vote, said Hubert Tisuaka, an election official.
Fresh balloting materials arrived late Sunday from the capital, Kinshasa, he said.
The vote, scheduled nationwide only for Sunday, was to select a new president and legislature to replace Congo's post-war, transitional administration. It's the first multiparty elections in 45 years of strife and dictatorship in the Western Europe-sized country.
Vote counting began after polls closed Sunday evening, but final results were not expected for weeks. Results will be hand tabulated and transported to Kinshasa by plane, truck and boat.
Electoral officials and observers outnumbered voters Sunday at many polling stations in Mbuji Mayi. A rock thrown into one station sent a lone voter fleeing. Outside, boycotters pelted would-be voters with stones until they were chased away by baton-wielding police officers.
Tshisekedi, who called for the boycott and has his main base of support in central Congo, has long taken a stand against violence. If his boycott is successful, he is likely to use that as proof of his influence as he pushes for a greater say in national politics.
But several leading candidates are former rebels who still command private armed militias, and could pose a real threat in the crucial, post-election period.
Tshisekedi asked his supporters not to register as voters when rolls were opened in 2005, claiming the negotiations that led to the vote were flawed. He later backtracked and said he would contest the presidency, but only if voter enrollment were reopened to allow his supporters to register. Congo's electoral commission refused, saying there was no time.
Tshisekedi denies he made a tactical error that will hurt his supporters. But the failure of his supporters to register has an effect beyond Sunday's vote.
The 500 seats in the National Assembly were allocated according to the number of registered voters. Mbuji-Mayi, Congo's second largest city with nearly 4 million people, will have only 11 seats, compared to 58 for the 8 million residents of Kinshasa, the capital.
That could mean more marginalization for the central region, known as Kasai, which had declared secession months after independence from Belgium in 1960.
Given the country's ethnic and regional disputes and political rivalries, the government's challenge after the vote will be to persuade Congolese that democracy, while it cannot solve all their problems, is the best option for resolving their differences.
Military strongman Mobutu Sese Seko took power and reunited the nation after democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Kasai was assassinated in 1961. Mobutu led the nation he called Zaire as a personal fiefdom for 32 years, using its mineral riches to fatten foreign banks accounts said to hold $4 billion when he died after being ousted by armed rebellions in 1997.
The wealth produced by the diamonds mined around Mbuji-Mayi is nowhere evident in this gritty south-central city. A region where diamonds are so plentiful they're collected by simply panning river sand has no electricity and no running water.
Independent miners get $10 for a $400 stone and workers of the state Bakwanga Mining company get about $50 a month in a country where it costs at least $1 a day to feed a family of five.
Reports from 10 polling stations in Mbuji-Mayi late Sunday indicated turnout was between five and 15 percent. In the nearby village of Leamiela, only 30 of 565 registered voters had cast ballots by the end of the day. Officials reported no violence or intimidation there.