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Tense Election Day in Eastern Congo

  • Heather Murdock

Congo election workers find voters' names on the rolls before they can cast their ballot, Nov. 28, 2011 Many voters complain their name did not appear at the station they registered in.

Congo election workers find voters' names on the rolls before they can cast their ballot, Nov. 28, 2011 Many voters complain their name did not appear at the station they registered in.

Polling stations were packed Monday in one of the most troubled provinces of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Voters and observers say that these elections could bring change and offer some relief to this impoverished region. Others say the country was not prepared for the elections, and express hope they do not bring renewed violence.

At 6 a.m. in Goma, the capital of this conflicted province, voters are lined up, ready for the polls to open. But when it was announced last week that voting would start at 6, nobody mentioned that meant Kinshasa time - the nation’s capital, one time zone to the east.

As they wait, voters say they don’t care how long the lines are, or how disorganized the voting rolls are - they are determined to vote.

This man, Jean Batiste, says his name is not on the local list, but he will stay until he gets his chance. He is certain he will. Hours later, though, the optimism at the polls is fading.

This is the sound of polling centers across Goma almost 12 hours later. Many lines have not thinned, and people are angry. Election workers and police plead with the people, saying everyone will get their chance to vote.

But in an election already marred by violence, massive disorganization and allegations of fraud, this province remains relatively calm. Reports of small fights and individuals stuffing ballot boxes trickle in throughout the day. Some airline flights are canceled because of renewed violence in the countryside. But many voters say they believe the election was fair, the ballot was secret. They say they are prepared to accept the outcome, whoever wins.

On a field visit to the eastern village of Sake with activist group Eastern Congo Initiative, Cindy McCain, the wife of U.S. Senator John McCain, says despite irregularities and delays at the polls, she is hopeful that Congo’s elections will come off peacefully.

"If Congo can produce an election that has transparency to it, that has a free process that gives them the ability to produce an election that is accepted in the world community, that means everything," said McCain. "It gives them a start and a place at the table. That's what we want. That's what all of us want. That's what Congo wants."

At the polls, voters say they are more concerned with domestic matters. If the election is settled peacefully, and that remains an "if" in many minds, they hope new leadership, or renewed leadership, will bring some of the economic development and peace they were promised five years ago, when Congo held its first multi-party elections in four decades.

In the late afternoon, this woman, Evelyn, 22, says she has been going from polling place to polling place since 6 in the morning to find her name on the voting list.

She finally came back to this high school, the place where she registered and is still hoping to vote. She says she is a college graduate, but has no job. If Congo chooses wisely, she says, things could start to get better.

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