updated 1/11/2006 10:09:12 PM ET 2006-01-12T03:09:12

A new constitution for this war-ravaged Central African nation was approved by a landslide vote, paving the way for historic presidential and parliamentary elections in March, according to electoral results released late Wednesday.

The balloting in December approved a charter that grants greater autonomy to mineral-rich provinces and lowers the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 — allowing an election bid by 34-year-old President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since his father’s 2001 assassination.

Electoral commission chief Appolinaire Malumalu said 84 percent had voted in favor of the constitution, compared to 16 percent against.

The new charter is considered crucial to securing peace after two back to back wars, the first in 1996-1997 and another from 1998-2002 that drew in the armies of six African nations. A transitional government that includes former rebel leaders has struggled to rule the country since 2002.

About 15 million of Congo’s 25 million registered voters cast ballots in the Dec. 18 referendum at 40,000 polling stations in the Europe-sized country, Malumalu said. He added that minor irregularities had been reported, but said the poll was fair overall.

Congolese had not voted en masse since 1970, when late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko stood as the sole candidate. His reign ended in 1997 when Kabila’s father, Laurent, swept to power at the head of a rebellion backed heavily by Rwandan troops.

The first parliamentary and presidential elections in decades are due in March, but no specific date has been set.

The constitution was written by members of the transitional government, including many former rebel leaders and Kabila partisans.

Some Congolese have expressed skepticism, however, saying some politicians have put their own interests ahead of the country. One key complaint: the charter’s lowering of the minimum age for presidential candidates, something they say was clearly done to benefit Kabila.

Female participation to assume major role
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.

It also aims to decentralize authority, dividing the vast nation into 25 semiautonomous provinces drawn along ethnic and cultural lines.

A study published last week in Britain’s leading medical journal, Lancet, said Congo was suffering the world’s deadliest humanitarian crisis, with 38,000 people dying each month mostly from easily treatable diseases.

A government spokesman dismissed the study, saying mortality figures had been exaggerated. The study claimed 4 million people died between 1998-2004 alone, mostly from disease — the indirect result of years of ruinous fighting that has brought on a stunning collapse of public health services.

The United Nations, with over 15,000 peacekeepers in the country, is guarding a shaky calm.

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