Why are we asking this question now?
Nearly 20 million Congolese people went to the polls at the end of July in the country's first democratic elections in more than 40 years. President Joseph Kabila won 45 per cent of the vote, but as he did not get enough to win outright, a run-off between him and the second-placed candidate,Jean-Pierre Bemba, is scheduled for 29 October.
But in a country where the rule of the gun has long outweighed diplomacy, the announcement of the election results, on 20 August, sparked a week of gun battles in the capital, Kinshasa, between supporters and soldiers loyal to both candidates. United Nations peacekeepers and an EU rapid reaction force, based in the region for the election period, patrol the streets and have negotiated an uneasy truce
Why has it been so long since the last elections?
Despite its name, the Democratic Republic of Congo has never been truly democratic. Under the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II at the turn of the 19th century, roughly half of the population - 10 million people - was killed as Leopold plundered Congo for its ivory and rubber.
Following independence from Belgium in 1960, the liberation leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the connivance of the US, which feared Lumumba's socialist vision for Congo would make it an ally of the Soviet Union.
A CIA-backed coup brought the kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko to power in 1965. His 32-year reign put at least $4bn in his personal Swiss bank account but brought the Congolese nothing but poverty. Not that the West minded - Mobutu was seen as a bulwark against communism in Africa.Ronald Reagan invited Mobutu to the White House several times and called him "a voice of good sense and good will".
A rebellion in the east, led by Laurent Kabila and backed by Rwanda and Uganda, forced Mobutu to flee in 1997. But Kabila swiftly fell out with his allies, sparking a bloody regional war that at one stage included nine countries in the region. It has been called Africa's World War, and more than four million people have died from war-related diseases.
Who are Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba?
Joseph Kabila became the world's youngest head of state when he came to power in 2001 at the age of 29 after the assassination of his father, Laurent. Kabila Jnr promised to bring peace, and in 2003 an agreement was signed in South Africa that paved the way for democratic elections.
He is wildly popular in the Swahili-speaking east, the region most affected by war over the past decade, gaining more than 85 per cent of the vote in some parts of Ituri and the Kivus. But in the west, including Kinshasa, Kabila has little support. His inability to speak Lingala, the main language in the west of Congo, has not endeared him to the population. Many believe he is nothing more than a stooge of the international community.
Jean-Pierre Bemba led the Ugandan-backed rebel group, the MLC, in the civil war. Although he polled in single digits in those areas affected by the war, Bemba capitalised on Kabila's unpopularity in other parts of the country.
What is the role of the international community?
A 17,000-strong UN mission, known by its French acronym Monuc, has been overseeing the implementation of the 2003 peace deal. It is the largest peacekeeping mission in the world.
Monuc's mandate has involved organising a massive disarmament programme aimed at returning the tens of thousands of militia men to civilian life or integrating them into the new federal Congolese army.
But the mission is expensive, costing UN member states $1.1bn each year, with the election process alone costing nearly $500m. The UN's role in organising the elections, allied to the stranglehold on state media that Kabila has been allowed, has led many Congolese, particularly in Kinshasa, to view the process as nothing more than an attempt by the west to legitimise Kabila. Humanitarian groups fear that once the elections process is complete, Monuc will be scaled down. The strengthened UN force in Lebanon, plus the proposed peacekeeping plan for Darfur, will put a further strain on the UN's resources.
How much does Congo matter to the rest of Africa?
From the days of King Leopold II, Congo has been home to a veritable treasure trove of precious minerals. Gold, diamonds, copper and zinc can all be found in Congo's mines, along with coltan - a mineral used in mobile phones and remote controls.
But despite the country's vast mineral wealth, very little has ever found its way to the general population. In 2002, a UN panel recommended sanctions on 29 multinational mining companies, which they claimed were taking too much profit out of the country. Senior government officials have also been accused of selling off contracts on the cheap in return for bribes.
The Congo River, the second longest river in Africa after the Nile, is another source of potential revenue. The river has one-sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential. The South African state energy firm, Eskom, plans to build a dam that could produce twice as much energy as the Three Gorges Dam in China. In a continent with enormous energy problems, Congo's river could provide an answer.
What will happen after the run-offs?
If the civil unrest in Kinshasa is kept under control, the run-off between Kabila and Bemba will take place in two months. As Kabila needs only an additional 5 per cent of the vote to secure victory, he is the favourite; but both sides will spend the coming months trying to persuade the beaten candidates and their supporters to back them.
Whoever wins the run-off will inherit a country split in two politically, and with little in the way of infrastructure - Congo is the size of western Europe but has just 300 miles of paved road - it will be vital for the country's future that the winner builds a broad coalition and makes a noticeable difference to people's lives during his five-year term.
Can democracy bring peace to the war-ravaged Congo?
* If President Kabila is re-elected, soldiers loyal to his rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, are likely to take to the streets
* Too many of the militia men integrated into the federal army have returned to their old ways of raping and pillaging
* Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi militia leader, may fight on if the 50,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda are not allowed to return
* After a decade of civil war the Congolese people want peace, and most of the militias have been integrated into the federal army
* Governments in the West will face pressure from international mining firms to ensure it is safe for them to operate there.
* Both Uganda and Rwanda, whose interest in Congo's minerals helped spark the conflict, are loath to start another warReuse content