Congolese bang on polling booth doors for chance to vote in referendum
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) – Congo’s war-beleaguered people voted in the first national ballot in over three decades Sunday, banging on polling-booth doors to be allowed in to say yes or no to a draft constitution meant to put the country on the path to democracy and lasting peace.Some 24 million people in the central African country were registered to vote on the charter, which would grant greater autonomy to mineral-laden regions but was viewed by many as another attempt by corrupt politicians to enrich themselves.After lining up before dawn, eager voters slammed their fists on the entryway of one polling center in the capital, Kinshasa, imploring election workers to let them in early to vote.”We are the small people. We don’t eat for days sometimes. I have never voted before and now we are passing from one era to another,” said Charles Begi, a 34-year-old teacher who was among the first to cast his vote. “Now the small people of the country are choosing its future.”Voters held aloft blue-dyed fingers as they exited polling stations, showing they had cast ballots, and election workers overturned clear plastic boxes onto tables to begin the count. The two-day referendum was to continue Monday.Final results were expected to be announced by the end of the year.Congolese have not voted en masse since 1970, when then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko stood as the sole presidential candidate. His reign ended in 1997 amid the first of two wars that wracked the country until 2002, causing the deaths of an estimated 4 million people.Sunday’s referendum was viewed as a crucial step toward lasting peace.But Congolese long accustomed to corrupt and violent rule were suspicious of the proposed constitution, which relatively few had scrutinized in a vast nation largely lacking roads or access to a wide array of media.”Even if I vote ‘no,’ they will change it to ‘yes,’ so what is the use of voting?” said 42-year-old Aime Asoba, followed by two toddlers dressed in black suits and bowler hats. “I am going to church. At least there is no treachery there.”Although many Western analysts viewed the document as flawed in some ways, they also considered it a crucial step toward ending a transitional government and laying the framework for a proper democratic government.The first parliamentary and presidential elections in decades are due in March.The charter was written by members of the transitional government, including many former rebel leaders and partisans of President Joseph Kabila.Many Congolese were suspicious, seeing manipulation that puts politicians’ interests ahead of their own.For example, the charter would lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 – allowing an election bid by Kabila, a 33-year-old who inherited the presidency in 2001 after the assassination of his father, whose rebel army ousted Mobutu.If the constitution is rejected, the transitional government will continue to govern, at least until its mandate ends on June 30.The constitution attempts to ensure female participation at all levels of government – notable in a country where rapes and gender-based violence were common during the wars.The draft also aims to decentralize authority, dividing the nation into 25 semiautonomous provinces drawn along ethnic and cultural lines.Despite vast deposits of mineral wealth, Congo’s people remain among the world’s poorest. The country, which is the size of western Europe, has known little but strife, coups, corrupt rule and army revolts since it shook off harsh Belgian rule and won independence in 1960.