Congo's president re-elected in disputed result

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2011 5:01 PM
Congo's president re-elected in disputed result

Congo's opposition leader who was declared the loser of the country's election on Friday, rejected those results and insisted he was president, setting the stage for a dangerous confrontation in the volatile Central African nation.

In the hours after incumbent President Joseph Kabila was named the winner of last month's race, unease gripped Congo's capital, though the mass mobilization of opposition supporters that some observers had feared did not immediately occur.

Columns of smoke smudged the sky above opposition neighborhoods where angry young men burned tires, sporadic shots pierced the air, and police wearing helmets and shin guards patrolled the streets. Across town in parts of Kinshasa loyal to Kabila, women cheered from balconies and supporters staged small victory parades across the wide boulevards.

The 40-year-old Kabila won 48.9 percent of the vote, or about 8.8 million of the 18.1 million votes cast. The 78-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi came in second with 5.8 million votes, or 32.3 percent, according to the final tallies released by election commission chief Daniel Ngoy Mulunda.

Repeated delays in releasing the results caused mounting tension in this nation that straddles a territory as large as Western Europe.

According to the country's constitution, the results should have been published no later than Tuesday, when Kabila's five-year term expired. The government delayed the announcement first by 48 hours, then by another 24, and Friday's press conference started three hours late, while diplomats shuttled between the two sides in an effort to ensure peace.

"I reject these results, and in fact I see them as a provocation against our people. .... it's scandalous and vulgar," the opposition leader said by telephone late Friday. "We have done our own calculations, and I received 54 percent. To Kabila's 26 percent. His term is finished. I am the president. It's me that got the votes of the people."

Tshisekedi said that he has asked his supporters to remain calm and has not yet given the order for them to flood the streets until he sees if diplomatic efforts led by the international community will change the situation.

A Western diplomat who met with the opposition leader in recent days in an attempt to coax him into accepting the outcome of the vote said that Tshisekedi seemed convinced of his victory, even though early results showed that Kabila had a nearly insurmountable lead. The diplomat requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

His refusal to accept the results is a dangerous development in this enormous country, where Kabila controls the army, and Tshisekedi controls the street.

That divide is felt especially strongly in Kinshasa where 10 million of the country's population of 70 million live.

Here, Tshisekedi got twice as many votes as Kabila. It's difficult for people to understand how he could have lost, especially in the downtrodden neighborhoods where most of his supporters live, and where people in wheelchairs and women with eyes covered in cataracts stood in the rain for hours for a chance to give Tshisekedi their vote on Nov. 28.

The vote has been clouded by technical glitches, starting with the late delivery of ballots. In some parts of the country, ballots had to be carried on the heads of porters, on bicycles, in vegetable carts and across churning rivers in dugout canoes. Many polling stations did not receive the material needed to carry out the vote until three days after the election was supposed to take place.

Although international observers said the vote was flawed, they stopped short of calling it fraudulent. Most said the irregularities across the nation weren't enough to change the outcome.

"We are very frustrated. It's a big deception for us. You go and you vote, and it means nothing," said one opposition supporter 50-year-old Fabien Bukasa, who had the look of someone that doesn't eat everyday. "We went out, and we started to burn things. On the spot, because there was so much emotion. But the old man has asked us to stay calm. So we calmed ourselves. We are waiting for his instructions."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for "any differences regarding the provisional results of the polls to be resolved peacefully through available legal and mediation mechanisms," according to a statement Friday.

The French Foreign Ministry also released a statement Friday appealing for peace. "France calls on all Congolese political players to show restraint and a spirit of responsibility," it said.

And in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is calling on Congo's leaders and their supporters "to act responsibly, to renounce violence, to resolve any disagreements they might have through peaceful dialogue."

Even before results were announced, election violence killed at least 18 people and left more than 100 wounded. Most of the deaths were caused by troops loyal to Kabila, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Kabila has been in office for the past 10 years, the last five following the country's first democratic election held in 2006, and the five before that after seizing power upon the death of his father.

The elder Kabila, a rebel leader born in the country's forest-covered east, launched the rebellion in 1997 that overthrew the country's dictator of 32 years. Mobutu Sese Seko, by some estimates, stole as much as $5 billion from the country's coffers, pauperizing his people who are now ranked dead last on the U.N. global index of human development.

Tshisekedi has been a staple of Congo's political scene for as long as Mobutu was around, founding the first opposition party that ran against Mobutu in the 1980s. On several occasions, Tshisekedi agreed to serve in Mobutu's government, only to resign shortly after.

In the four-star Grand Hotel, Kabila's aides had booked the largest ballroom. Supporters wearing T-shirts printed with Kabila's face crowded the hallways Friday night. Waiters ran in and out of the elevators, ferrying bottles of champagne to the VIP room where the president's closest associates were raising a toast.

"Yes there were imperfections in the election," said one of them, parliamentarian Francis Kalombo, considered one of Kabila's closest aides. "But Tshisekedi is no democrat. He's a dictator. He came of age alongside a dictator, Mobutu _ and that's all he knows."

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Jerome Delay, Carley Petesch in Johannesburg and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.