Second day of constitutional referendum in Congo

Voters marked ballots for a second day Monday in Congo's constitutional referendum on whether to adopt a draft charter meant to kickstart the war-battered central African nation's drive toward lasting peace. Only one-quarter of Congo's 40,000 polling centers, those that opened late on Sunday or experienced distribution problems, reopened on Monday, said Desire Molekela, spokesman for Congo's Independent Electoral Commission.

Many Congolese believed they could vote either day and hundreds of would-be voters lined up around the capital, Kinshasa, in front of polling centers that stayed dark. "I heard on national radio that we could vote on Monday, this is unbelievable," said Feret Mwanza, 33, an unemployed resident of Kinshasa who had traveled from the other end of the sprawling city to vote Monday morning. "I want to vote, but now I can't."

U.N. officials reported scattered violence during Sunday's first day of voting, with three injured in a fight in the southern diamond center of Lubumbashi.

U.N. radio reported one child trampled underfoot during a rush to vote in Bukavu, an eastern city. Officials couldn't confirm the incident. Congolese have not voted en masse since 1970, when then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko stood as the sole candidate. His reign ended in 1997 amid the first of two wars that wracked the country until 2002. The referendum is viewed as a crucial step toward lasting peace.

The charter would grant greater autonomy to mineral-laden regions but is viewed by many as another attempt by corrupt politicians to enrich themselves.

Some 24 million people are registered to vote. Final results are expected by the end of the year. There were 280 international observers on hand to watch the voting. Turnout appeared moderate in Kinshasa, with traffic so light at some polling centers that election workers were asleep on the premises.

Many Western analysts say a rejection would represent bad news. Although they view the document as perhaps flawed in some ways, they consider it to be a crucial step toward ending a transitional government and laying the framework for the construction of a proper democratic government.

The charter was written by members of the transitional government, including many former rebel leaders and partisans of President Joseph Kabila. But many Congolese are suspicious, seeing manipulation that put politicians' interests ahead of their own. For example, the draft lowers the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, allowing the incumbent Kabila, a 33-year-old who inherited his father's rebel army that ousted Mobutu, to seek re-election. If the constitution is rejected, the transitional government will continue to govern Congo, at least until its mandate ends on June 30. The constitution attempts to ensure female participation at all levels of government, notable in a country where rapes and gender-based violence were common during the wars.

The draft constitution also aims to decentralize authority, dividing the vast nation into 25 semiautonomous provinces drawn along ethnic and cultural lines. The first general elections in decades are due in March, reports the AP. I.L.

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