Michel Euler / AP
Election workers take a break next to election boxes and tallies at a central election processing station in Kinshasa on Wednesday. It is expected to take over three weeks to know the official result of Congo's first democratic election in over 45 years.
updated 8/3/2006 9:28:20 AM ET 2006-08-03T13:28:20

Whether a new peace or more violence lies ahead for Congo, its people have embraced the chance to join fellow Africans who are increasingly finding their voices through the ballot box.

The vote Sunday in Congo, a massive country in the center of Africa that’s been ruined by war, typifies the continent’s postcolonial struggles — and its hopes that legitimate governments will at last act on their citizens’ behalf.

African countries once torn apart by strife and injustice have now held multiparty elections, and voters say the advance of democratic rule won’t be turned back, though analysts say that voting alone does not equal democracy and is not a panacea for what ails the continent.

Search for good governance
In 1991, when multiparty elections first began sweeping Africa, what was then called Zaire looked like much of the continent: It was laden with vast troves of valuable natural resources controlled by rich leaders in charge of desperately poor people.

The themes of exploitation, deprivation and violence played out across Africa before elections. South Africa’s townships burned under apartheid. Military regimes ruled Nigeria. Ethiopia starved and fighters wearing looted ball gowns preyed on civilians in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

With shifting global priorities, Western leaders and donors began valuing good governance over simple internal stability. The collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed a source of funding for African leaders who had, sometimes cynically, embraced communism. Now, the continent-wide African Union has declared it will bar from its ranks leaders who took power unconstitutionally.

Most of sub-Saharan Africa’s people have voted — and not just in government-sponsored referenda where ruling leaders gain 99 percent of the vote.

“During Mobutu, we could only vote 'Yes.' Now we can vote for who we want. There are no soldiers here telling us how to vote,” said Michel Katako, a 52-year old railroad worker who voted Sunday in Congo’s trash-choked capital, Kinshasa.

Final results are not expected for weeks.

A former rebel leader who was among the 33 presidential candidates has alleged massive fraud but pledged that his protest would remain peaceful as preliminary results trickle in. Foreign observers have so far praised the process as open and largely peaceful.

Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda appeared to set the pace for voting reform in Africa in 1991, when the decades-long ruler lost multiparty elections he arranged, then handed over the keys to the presidency to the victor.

Elections not a panacea
But freer political space has not ended problems for Africa.

Apartheid in South Africa crumbled after Nelson Mandela’s electoral victory in 1994, but crime, AIDS and poverty remain. Some 10,000 Nigerians have died in ethnic and religious strife since that country’s 2000 vote ended heavy-handed military rule.

Despite advances under elected President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria is still considered among the world’s most corrupt nations.

Swaziland has one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, and some elected leaders, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, have consolidated power inside their executive offices in ways reminiscent of military dictatorships.

Even in countries headed by leaders who prevailed at the ballot boxes, journalists and human rights workers are jailed, political opponents stymied and government funds looted.

“Elections don’t equal democracy,” says David S. Pottie, an assistant director of the Carter Center, which was founded by former President Carter and often monitors overseas elections.

Voting can provide ways to make and implement decisions that affect large numbers of people, but “what’s more important in unleashing democracy and development is to create structures, mindsets and practices that involve the people,” says Pottie, who focuses on democracy projects.

Still hopeful in Congo
That’s the hope in Congo. But the country is still roiled by back-to-back wars that ended in 2002 with President Joseph Kabila’s negotiated settlement that set up the transitional administration that arranged Sunday’s vote.

There are concerns that some of the presidential candidates won’t accept the outcome and that armed struggle could flare anew. But voters hope that democracy means elected leaders will be responsive to voters’ needs, making economic development and peace a priority.

“This will be the first time we have democracy. After the vote, our lives will improve. Why? We will finally have a free country,” said Katako, the Kinshasa voter. “If we have an elected president, he’ll work for the people and help end the suffering.”

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