Congo President Extends Lead in Historic Elections

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President Joseph Kabila's share of the vote in Congo's historic elections rose above 50 percent Saturday as 1 million more votes were counted and certified, official results showed.

With a rash of tallies coming in from Congo's east, where Kabila's support is strong, the president extended his share to 53 percent, compared with 19 percent for Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel leader in the civil war and vice president in a postwar unity government.

A majority would give Kabila an outright victory. Otherwise, the two top finishers in the field of 33 candidates in the July 30 presidential vote would meet in a run-off.

More than 16 million votes remained to be counted, and there have been no firm results yet from the capital, Kinshasa, where Bemba is believed to have strong support among the sprawling city's 8 million people.

Electoral officials said Saturday that 3.2 million votes had been counted, or about 1 million more than on Friday, when Kabila's share stood at 48 percent. Some 20 million votes were cast in Congo's first elections in more than 40 years.

CountryWatch: Congo (DRC)

On Friday, authorities arrested six electoral workers accused of tampering with the count as 19 minor candidates claimed fraud and demanded fresh balloting across the vast nation.

The possibility of Congo's population rejecting the vote worries foreign diplomats, who say the ballot's legitimacy is crucial to swinging Congolese behind their first democratic leader since 1961.

Many international observers noted irregularities in the voting and in the protracted and chaotic counting, but none serious enough so far to affect the outcome.

Delion Kimbulumpu, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, said the fact that the six workers had been caught altering tally sheets was reassuring.

"This proves the elections are credible," he said. "We really appreciate the vigilance at the local compilation centers. This confirms that the mechanisms in place are working."

A preliminary countrywide tally is expected to be announced Aug. 20, and a final tally Aug. 31.

Officials had at first said no partial results would be released, but backtracked because of the uncertainty fanned by competing camps making claims based on their own compilations from figures posted outside polling stations across Congo.

Both Bemba and Azarias Ruberwa, another vice president and former rebel leader running for president, have alleged fraud in the vote.

Neither joined in the call for new elections issued by their 19 competitors, who are viewed by many Congolese as spoilers seeking to wring influence from a process that has not seen any of them gain much popular support.

The accusations by Bemba and Ruberwa could prove incendiary, as both have large bases of support, but both have said they will accept the results if international observers deem the election fair and transparent.

Kabila was seen as the front-runner because many credit him with taking the initiative to end Congo's 1996-2002 war by uniting warring rebels to form a transitional government that paved the way for the elections. But some are also suspicious he is being forced on them by the international community.

The mineral-rich nation the size of western Europe has been roiled by wars and corrupt rule since independence from Belgium in 1960. The last multiparty vote for a leader was in 1961. The winner was killed and military regimes took power.