Rory Carroll

Sunday's elections could turn the page on decades of misery and misrule

A tense calm gripped the Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday on the eve of a momentous election which could turn the page on decades of misery and misrule.

Official campaigning ended at midnight to give voters a day of reflection before Sunday's ballot, the most ambitious and expensive in Africa's history.

Warlords in eastern provinces promised not to disrupt voting and the Catholic Church decided against a boycott, boosting the chances of a high and peaceful turnout.

``We want there to be elections, we want to stop the fighting. We want peace,'' a militia leader, Mathieu Ngudjolo, said.

A six-year war, which claimed four million lives, officially ended in 2003, but the shaky interim Government has struggled to quell armed groups which bring anarchy and terror to civilians.

The country's first taste of democracy in more than four decades is intended to produce a President and Parliament with a mandate to end conflict and corruption.

Sporadic clashes between rival groups left dozens dead and injured in the past week, and widespread allegations of intimidation and rigging fed a febrile atmosphere, but the build-up has been mostly peaceful. ``We're ready for elections,'' said Ross Mountain, the deputy U.N. special representative for Congo.

Shattered infrastructure

The challenge and stakes are enormous: 50,000 polling stations dotted across a country the size of western Europe, a shattered infrastructure requiring fleets of helicopters and canoes to transport ballot papers, huge rewards if things go well, incalculable costs if they do not.

The U.N. has invested gambled, say sceptics over $460 million and 17,500 peacekeepers in what it considers a make-or-break moment for the continent.

The E.U. has dispatched an additional 1,500 troops in case of emergencies. ``Congo matters because it has been the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,'' said Dmitry Titov, head of U.N. peacekeeping in Africa.

``It matters because the conflict impacted on huge territory throughout Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian.''

Critics say the choice facing voters is too big: 33 presidential and 9,500 parliamentary candidates have produced a ballot of eight enormous pages. In a practice run in the capital, Kinshasa, people took an average of 28 minutes to vote.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006