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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 December 2005, 16:30 GMT
DR Congo 'backs new constitution'
Polling station
DR Congo's infrastructure has been wrecked by war and misrule
Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo have overwhelmingly backed a new post-war constitution in a referendum, early results indicate.

The president of DR Congo's electoral commission said the "yes" campaign had won 78% of votes, compared to 21% for the "no" campaign, on a 34% count.

The vote was the first open election in 40 years in the vast country, ravaged by years of war and misrule.

European Union observers said the poll had been largely free and fair.

The observers said there were difficulties in organising the referendum, but that the voting took place in a peaceful atmosphere and all Congolese could express their opinions.

The "yes" vote was in the lead in across the whole of DR Congo, electoral chief Apollinaire Malu Malu said.

Even the capital, Kinshasa, not known as a bastion of support for the constitution, appeared narrowly to have backed the agreement.

All 11 areas of the country backed the constitution, with the eastern Kivu provinces worst affected by conflict returning almost 100% approval, the AFP news agency reported.

High turnout

If approved, the draft constitution would pave the way for the country's first multi-party election next year.

Election officials counting the votes
Election officials do not want to make any mistakes
The BBC's Nick Miles, in Kinshasa, says election officials backed up by tens of thousands of volunteers are being extremely thorough when counting the votes to avoid any errors.

There were 36,000 polling stations across the country, which is the size of Western Europe but which lacks long-distance roads and rail links.

But turnout has reportedly been high - around 60% nationwide, and particularly high in the Kivu.

No matter how compromised by corruption and abuse of power in Kinshasa, they see the elections as a step forward
Jason Stearns
International Crisis Group

"No matter how compromised by corruption and abuse of power in Kinshasa, they see the elections as a step forward," International Crisis Group senior analyst Jason Stearns told Reuters news agency.

Opposition groups led by veteran Etienne Thisekedi have called for a boycott and there seemed to be fewer voters in the southern Kasai provinces and the capital, Kinshasa.

Confusion

On Sunday, thousands of armed police were stationed at polling centres to make sure there was no violence, helped by members of the 16,000-strong UN peacekeeping force.

Voting had to be extended into an unscheduled second day in many areas after some polling stations lacked the full list of eligible voters, while elsewhere heavy rain hampered the vote.

DR CONGO CONSTITUTION
President limited to two five-year terms
Presidential age limit reduced from 35 to 33
President names prime minister from largest party
Provinces increased from 10 to 26
Same-sex marriage banned

Our correspondent says many Congolese are reluctant to endorse a new constitution drawn up by leaders they hold responsible for the country's prolonged conflict.

But some voters said in spite of reservations about the constitution, they would endorse it so that the country could move on.

The new constitution would limit the power of the president, give the country's regions more influence and strengthen the judicial system.

But there was confusion about what was in the text. The electoral commission has said it had distributed some 500,000 copies of the constitution around the country in four major Congolese languages - Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba and Swahili.

"It is too bad we have to vote for a mystery document, but there is nothing else we can do," Edouardin Mputu, a young lawyer, told AFP.


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