DRC votes on constitution

As the first polling stations closed there were no reports of irregularities from the 280 international and 5,000 local observers, although radio reported a woman was trampled to death as a crowd rushed a polling station and a baby suffocated on its mother’s back during a crush in a queue.

“All we can say this evening is that the participation rate is satisfactory overall,” said Flavien Misoni, director of voting operations at the Independent Electoral Commission.

“It is very substantial in eight provinces,” he said, indicating a turnout of above 60 percent.

The proposed constitution provides for a president elected by universal suffrage for a once-renewable five-year term, with a bicameral parliament whose members will also have five-year mandates.

The country formerly known as Zaire, has yet to recover from a regional war waged from August 1998 to December 2002 which embroiled the armies of several other African nations and left about three million people dead.

Voting goes well

But in three provinces voters stayed away from the polls, Mr Misoni said.

“In Kinshasa and Western Kasai (in the centre) turnout is average, while in Eastern Kasai it is low,” he said.

“You have to treat that with care. Operations have not finished and we are waiting for the consolidated figures, which we will not have until (Monday) after all polling stations are shut.”

“The operation is going well,” electoral commission head Apollinaire Malu Malu said earlier.

“Here and there we have had some problems getting under way, some pushing and shoving, but what is important is that people have responded massively to this hugely important referendum.

“That is the biggest news: people want elections. They are ready and they are showing it.”

About 35,000 polling stations of the 40,000 that were planned opened throughout the vast country. Authorities said “logistical difficulties” and “security problems” in conflict areas meant some could not open on time.

Asked about the low turnout in the capital Kinshasa and in Mbuji-Mayi in Eastern Kasai, stronghold of the forces calling for a boycott of the vote, Mr Malu Malu said it was too early to draw conclusions because of transport and electoral list problems and churchgoing practices.

“There was an intimidation attempt at one station in Mbuji-Mayi.

Anti-social elements tried to dissuade electors from voting but it didn’t work,” he said.

Series of polls

Since June, the electoral commission has registered more than 24.5 million voters in a nation almost the size of western Europe whose infrastructure has collapsed from decades of neglect and war.

The referendum is only the first in a series of polls designed to cap a period of political transition which began in 2003 and is due culminate on June 30 next year.

President Joseph Kabila and most parties to the transitional administration, which includes former rebels, have urged a “yes” vote, as has former colonial power Belgium, which warned against the “collective suicide” of rejection.

However, a number of small but vociferous political opposition parties have formed a de facto coalition of “no” campaigners.

Political analysts warn that a “no” vote could be a catastrophic setback on the path to democracy in the mineral-rich country, which has seen no free elections since independence in 1960.