Congolese partial election results show president's lead slipping

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Official partial results from Congo's landmark presidential election showed support for President Joseph Kabila settling just above 50 per cent yesterday, increasing the likelihood of a runoff.

Less than a quarter of the ballots cast from the July 30 vote have been counted. Unless one of the 33 candidates wins the majority, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a second round of voting.

The election - Congo's first multiparty presidential vote in more than four decades of war and unrest - is seen as a chance to establish democracy and peace.

With 4.7 million votes counted and certified, Kabila has received 51 per cent of the vote, compared with 19 per cent for Jean-Pierre Bemba, an ex-rebel leader and vice president in the Central African country's postwar national-unity government. The latest count includes about a million more ballots than Saturday's figures. About 20 million votes were cast.

Saturday's returns had put Kabila's share at 53 per cent, helped by a rash of ballots from the east where Kabila's support is strong. Many of Sunday's additions came from the Equateur region where Zanga Mobutu, son of Congo's last dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, had a strong showing. Mobutu has received at least 2.7 per cent of the vote, though a more specific figure was not available.

Others who have received at least 2 per cent of the vote include Pierre Pay Pay, a longtime ally of Mobutu Sese Seko, Harvard-educated Dr. Oscar Kashala and 80-year-old Antoine Gizenga, most showing strength in their native provinces.

No firm results have yet been posted from the capital, Kinshasa, where Bemba is believed to have strong support among the sprawling city's 8 million people.

On Friday, authorities arrested six electoral workers accused of tampering with the count, as over a dozen minor candidates cried fraud and demanded fresh balloting across the vast nation.

Nineteen of the 33 candidates on the ballot in the July 30 elections have banded together to denounce the vote as fraudulent and called Friday for a fresh vote, according to a spokesman for the bloc, Roger Lumbala. None of the 19 has so far emerged as a front-runner.

The specter of Congo's population rejecting the vote worries foreign diplomats, who say the elections' legitimacy is crucial to swinging Congolese behind their first democratic leader since 1961. Many international observers noted irregularities in the voting and protracted and chaotic counting, but none so far considered serious enough to affect the outcome.

In all, about 80 per cent of Congo's 25 million registered voters - some 20 million people - cast ballots in the July 30 presidential and legislative election. Congo has 58 million people.

A preliminary countrywide tally was expected to be announced Aug. 20, and a final tally Aug. 31.

Both Bemba and Azarias Ruberwa, another vice president and former rebel leader running for president, have alleged fraud in the vote, though both have said they'll accept results if they're deemed fair by international observers. Bemba has said he is leading Kabila in many parts of Congo.

Kabila was seen as the front-runner because many in Congo credit him with taking the initiative to end Congo's 1996-2002 war by uniting warring rebels to form a transitional government that paved the way for the elections. But some are also suspicious that he is being forced on them by the international community.

The mineral-rich nation the size of western Europe has been roiled by wars and corrupt rule since 1960 independence from Belgium. Congo's last multiparty vote for a leader was in 1961. The winner was killed and military regimes took power.