Will Congo Vote for War?

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It didn't take long. Even before the Democratic Republic of Congo's electoral commission announced the interim results of the country's first free vote in more than 40 years Sunday night, fighting had broken out in Kinshasa, the mouldering capital on the Congo River. Supporters of President Joseph Kabila clashed with backers of former warlord and current vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who accused Kabila's Republican Guard of attacking its headquarters. Earlier, young men angry with Kabila's success hurled insults and rocks at patrolling policemen. "If you want war," they shouted, according to the BBC, "we are ready for it".

Perhaps it will come to that. The fighting escalated Monday, forcing U.N. peacekeepers to evacuate a group of foreign diplomats who had arrived in Bemba's compound for a meeting and found themselves pinned down by artillery fire. On Tuesday morning, according to Reuters, automatic weapons fire ripped through the city and at least two government tanks headed towards the main area of fighting. The United Nations says it is flying in 400 extra Dutch and German peacekeepers on standby in nearby Gabon. They will join the 17,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops dotted around the vast central African nation. Diplomats from the U.N., South Africa and elsewhere are now scrambling to end the fighting before it spreads.

The results from the July 30 poll give Kabila, who took office after the assassination of his father Laurent in 2001, just under 45% of the votes cast. Bemba, who led one of the biggest rebel factions in Congo's civil war (from 1998 to 2003) before taking a vice-presidential post in the transitional government, came second with just over 20% support. Because no challenger passed the 50% mark, the two will now face a run-off vote in October.

The geography of the two men's support illustrates how deeply divided the vast country is. Kabila was the overwhelming favorite in eastern Congo, which bore the brunt of the fighting during the long-running war, and where most people are desperate for peace. Support for Bemba is strongest in the center and far west of the country. The area around Kinshasa went to a third candidate, veteran politician Antoine Gizenga. Many in the west, including residents of Kinshasa, resent Kabila's rise to power and see him as an interloper who grew up in Tanzania and struggles in Lingala, the most common language across Congo.

Election observers feared that a clear-cut Kabila win would spark violence, especially in the capital. Most of the other presidential runners had, after all, already claimed the vote was rigged. But even with a second round now required, tensions have spilled over, and defusing them will prove difficult. It is unclear whether Kabila backs his supporters' violence or if they are acting as a renegade force. And Bemba may presume that with little chance of winning the president's palace he may as well return to the bush and his old violent ways.

Congo's people had hoped that the poll would mark an end to the long-running violence in their country. The election process itself was remarkably peaceful given Congo's history. But unless the two men now in the running to lead the country can convince their followers to put down their weapons, there's a very good chance that will simply plunge Congo into yet another round of chaos.