"So much is riding on the poll that some have called it the most significant on the continent since the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
High turnout as Congo goes to the polls
> Voting goes smoothly in largest UN-run election
> Hope for future as fears of violence prove unfounded
Xan Rice, east Africa correspondent
Monday July 31, 2006
Up to 20 million people turned out to vote yesterday in the Democratic Republic of Congo's first multiparty elections for four decades.
Watched by 17,600 UN peacekeepers, 80,000 local police officers and 1,000 EU troops, people queued before dawn at 50,000 poll stations. On huge ballot papers - six broadsheet-size pages each - they voted for a president, a parliament and a future free of the war, corruption and misrule that have plagued the country since independence.
"We've only had coups d'etat and dictators in this country: phantom governments," Emmanuel Kiye, a 48-year-old mechanic told Associated Press in the capital, Kinshasa. "Now we'll have a government of the people."
Joseph Kabila, the 35-year-old incumbent who took power when his father, Laurent, was assassinated in 2001, is the clear favourite to win the presidential vote. Among the 32 other candidates, his closest challengers are expected to be the former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba and Dr Oscar Kashala, a Harvard-educated cancer researcher who returned from the US to contest the poll.
Congo's 25 million registered voters, who were frisked for weapons before dipping their right thumb in purple ink, were also asked to choose from 9,700 candidates vying for 500 seats in the national assembly.
The election, which was repeatedly postponed because of insecurity and logistical problems, was boycotted by some leading figures including the veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, who said the poll was rigged.
There was also a strong feeling among some opposition supporters that Mr Kabila is being unfairly backed by the west, particularly the EU.
But most Congolese have embraced the electoral campaign that saw candidates handing out T-shirts, caps and even money - one millionaire candidate apparently dropped banknotes from his helicopter.
Fears of widespread violence during the voting proved unfounded. While one polling station in the diamond-mining town of Mbuji-Mayi, a stronghold of Mr Tshisekedi, was torched by youths, there were no reports of deaths or widespread intimidation.
Observers said turnout appeared high, and could match the 80% achieved during last year's constitutional referendum.
Speaking from Lubumbashi in the south-east of the country yesterday, British MEP Richard Howitt, one of 1,200 foreign election observers in the Congo, said: "People are voting very enthusiastically. This does seem to be a well-contested election."
Results of the presidential race are not expected for three weeks. If no candidate achieves 50% of the vote, the top two will face a run-off, possibly in November.
So much is riding on the poll that some have called it the most significant on the continent since the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.After enduring 32 years of plunder by Mobutu Sese Seko, who ensured that one of the world's most mineral-rich countries remained impoverished, Congo was plunged into a war that drew in five countries and helped cause 4 million deaths.
After a peace deal in 2002, the UN's largest peacekeeping force was deployed to try to disarm the myriad rebel groups roaming the country. Donors pumped in more than £220m - Britain was the largest contributor, with £36m - to prepare for what is the most expensive election ever supervised by the UN.
If the count proceeds smoothly and the main parties accept the results - which is by no means guaranteed - it could usher in a new era of peace, stability and development. If not, some of the rebel leaders-cum-politicians could return to the bush and plunge the Great Lakes region into chaos once again.