Staring down at a poster-sized ballot with 33 presidential choices, Musenga Matatunda cast her vote Sunday using political reasoning molded by a lifetime under dictatorship.
She picked the oldest one.
Even if he turns out to be corrupt, the 80-year-old politician won’t live long enough to cause much trouble, the tiny woman rationalized. “At that age, people don’t have personal ambition,” she added. “They just want to serve.”
Across the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, millions turned out Sunday for the first democratic election in 40 years. Many walked four hours or more to reach polling stations in a country about a fourth the size of the U.S., brushing aside fears that the election might prompt renewed violence.
“This is the most important day for the country since 1960,” when the nation won its independence, said transitional President Joseph Kabila before voting amid a throng of supporters.
Though the balloting was largely peaceful and orderly, a handful of polling stations were set afire in the central region, reportedly by groups urging a boycott, officials said. Some voters reported isolated incidents of intimidation.
“But it was remarkably quiet given the tradition of violence this country has seen,” said Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the United Nations mission in Congo, which helped organized the vote.
About 1,300 international observers and 50,000 Congolese helped monitor the poll. A final determination on the election’s fairness is expected this week, but there were no immediate reports of widespread fraud.
It is hoped that the election will help the Central African nation rebuild after the 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, which was followed by eight years of war.
Voters chose among presidential candidates who included four women, a son of Mobutu, former rebel leaders and a variety of government officials and academics. Front-runners include Kabila, the son of assassinated rebel leader Laurent Kabila, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a rival rebel leader once backed by Uganda.
Voters were also asked to choose among 9,700 candidates for 500 parliament seats, including the election’s only white contender, a Kinshasa businessman born of European parents whose campaign poster asked simply, “Why Not?”
In Kinshasa, the capital, voters struggled to fold, roll or wad the six-page parliamentary ballots into ballot boxes.
Official results might take weeks to tally, though provisional results may come out next week.
In the village of Binanga, west of the capital, Mayenyo Bidi, 32, woke at 3 a.m. to walk 15 miles to the nearest polling station. She rejected every candidate serving in the transitional government, complaining that her town lacked an elementary school and hospital.
“They’ve been in power for years and haven’t done anything,” Bidi said. “They all have to go.” She instead voted for a candidate from her province.
Because of the large number of candidates and the tendency for voters to side with contenders from their native regions or tribes, many analysts predict that no presidential candidate will garner the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.
Despite the relatively calm vote, tensions remain high over how candidates and their supporters will react if returns don’t swing their way. Three of the main presidential candidates control private militias with thousands of soldiers. Last week, some of those militias clashed during campaign rallies, reportedly killing at least three people.
Many opponents of Kabila believe that European countries are secretly backing the transitional president, fueling a strong anti-Western sentiment in parts of the capital. One budding political coalition calls itself “Anyone But Kabila.” And many worry that if Kabila is declared the winner, angry, young supporters of Bemba, his chief rival, will riot.
“If Kabila is declared the winner, the country is going to burn,” said Oscar Kashala, a cancer researcher who returned to Congo this year to run for president after living in the U.S. for 20 years.
For the last three years, peace has been possible largely because of a delicate power-sharing deal that gave Kabila, Bemba and other former rebels lucrative government positions and ministries.
U.S. and U.N. officials have issued warnings against losing factions taking up arms.
“We want to discourage any spoilers,” said Jendayi E. Frazer, U.S. assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. “We as an international community will stand together in trying to discourage and hold accountable those leaders who try to instigate any such political violence.”