KINSHASA, Congo – The race to lead sub-Saharan Africa's largest country kicks off this week with presidential candidates registering for the November election, a vote that threatens to spark even more violence in this nation already wracked by back-to-back civil wars, and still haunted by a myriad of armed groups.
Incumbent Joseph Kabila, who first took power after his father's assassination more than a decade ago, had appeared all but certain of victory until the opposition announced some surprising challengers. Among them is Kabila's main rival in the 2006 vote — Jean-Pierre Bemba, who awaits his war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
Even months before the election, analysts are already warning that this sprawling Central African nation could confront an electoral dilemma similar to the one that ravaged Ivory Coast earlier this year when the incumbent refused to acknowledge defeat after losing the November runoff.
The International Crisis Group said Congo's vote could "easily become as violent" as Ivory Coast, where thousands were killed and 1 million displaced.
Kabila already has pushed a series of constitutional changes through Parliament that strengthen his powers and most importantly, replace the two-round voting system with just one winner-takes-all round. That move forces the opposition to band together if they have any hope of ousting him.
Analysts, though, doubt that any of these politicians are willing to abandon their own personal ambitions in a country where parties are based on personalities, with each one's ego bigger than the last.
"There is such egocentricity ... Each has such pride, each believes that without him, nothing can be achieved," said analyst Banza Mukalay Nsungu.
At a rally last week in Kinshasa, leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi announced to the crowds overflowing an 80,000-seat stadium that he is ready to negotiate with other opposition parties for a joint fight against Kabila.
But Tshisekedi, making his first historic bid at the presidency since he formed the nation's first opposition party in 1982, also has made clear his desire to run. And at 78 years old, he is unlikely to get another chance.
Tshisekedi returned to Congo in December after being treated for three years for an unspecified ailment in South Africa and Belgium, Congo's former colonizer. To counter concerns about his health, he walked the 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the airport to his suburban home in Kinshasa upon his triumphant return.
Another leading contender, former Kabila ally Vital Kamerhe, also has stressed the need for the opposition to unite.
"I want to say loud and clear to Jean-Pierre Bemba and Etienne Tshisekedi that I am ready for talks," said Kamerhe. "We are convinced that there is no political or social force, no individual, who can win the 2011 elections alone."
Kamerhe, 52, ran President Kabila's campaign in 2006, when the constitution was changed so that he could run at 35 years old, the youngest president in the world.
There's been no word from Bemba, imprisoned in The Hague for three years on International Criminal Court charges that militiamen under his command murdered raped and pillaged in neighboring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. He denies all charges.
Bemba's lawyer in Congo said last week they expect him to be released for long enough to return home to lodge his candidature — a legal requirement that has to be fulfilled in person — though that remains doubtful. And Bemba's insistence on running has ruptured his party with deputy leader Francois Muamba breaking away to form another party.
Kabila has been characteristically silent, not even announcing his candidacy.
November's presidential vote will be the first since the landmark 2006 election, considered the country's first democratic ballot in 40 years. After Kabila was declared the winner of a runoff votes against Bemba, battles erupted in Kinshasa between troops backing Kabila and armed fighters supporting Bemba. Scores were killed.
The mineral-rich country is still trying to recover from decades of dictatorship and war that had eight African armies and 25 local militias fighting, above all, for control of the nation's minerals. Millions died before a peace agreement was brokered in 2003. Violence still rages in the country's east, where government soldiers and rebels have brutally raped women, men and children and burned down villages.
Kabila has won points with many Congolese for brokering a controversial $9 billion deal with Beijing that would give China millions of tons of copper and cobalt in return for building a railway, roads, hospitals and schools — more infrastructure than the Central African nation has ever had.
On the corruption front, questions are being asked about the sale of some $800 million of assets from the state copper and cobalt miner Gecamines. Despite Kabila's promises to bring transparency, no one will say how much the state mines' assets have been sold for, nor what has happened to the money. Kabila's opponents charge the deal, just months before the elections, will provide convenient campaigning funds.
The international community paid 80 percent of the 2006 election costs but has cut its contribution to less than 40 percent for this year's vote.
Human rights violations remain massive in Congo, with impunity reigning, the unsolved killings of several journalists and the 2010 killing of leading human rights campaigner Floribert Chebeya. In June, the police intelligence chief and three other police officers were sentenced to death for Chebeya's murder.
Amid the ongoing insecurity and violence, more than 31 million voters have been registered this year among Congo's 68 million people. Opposition parties have denounced the process, charging that voter's cards have been issued in the names of long-dead citizens, nonexistent people, to children as young as 12 years old and to foreigners.
Faul reported from Johannesburg.