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Voting a Logistical Nightmare in Congo

July 18, 2006

BUNIA, Congo (AP) _ Getting the vote to this eastern Congo town means conquering jungle and coping without phones or banks to pay poll workers. And then there are the militiamen running rampant across this lawless corner of a vast nation just emerging from civil war.

On July 30, Congo is joining the slow but steady spread of democracy in Africa by electing its leader for the first time since 1960, but it faces a logistical nightmare.

``In many countries you have logistic, security or communication problems,″ said Ali Diabacte, chief of the U.N.’s electoral division in Congo. ``But in Congo we have to deal with all of these problems at once.″

Over 25 million of Congo’s 58 million people have registered for a vote for president and parliament of a country ravaged by brutal Belgian colonial rule, then by dictatorship, rebellions and back-to-back wars between 1996 and 2002.

More than 4 million died in fighting or from war-induced hunger and disease in the 1996-2002 turmoil.

The U.N. has launched Africa’s largest air operation, with over 100 planes and helicopters crisscrossing a country the size of Western Europe to deploy thousands of ballot boxes, electoral agents and their salaries.

Congo has only about 300 miles of paved roads, and many ballots will reach remote villages tied to the back of bicycles, rocking on shaky dugout canoes and atop villagers’ heads.

Some 50,000 voting stations are embedded deep within tropical forests or in river towns.

Peace deals in 2002 set up a transitional government and a June 2005 deadline for elections, but political infighting and logistical problems delayed the vote. Further delays could provoke protest from a population impatient to cast ballots.

``In addition to all the logistical difficulties we have a calendar to respect,″ said Flavien Misoni, chief of operations at Congo’s electoral commission. ``We constantly have to make decisions based on estimates. It is a big challenge to get it right.″

Without access to any formal banking system, the commission had trouble paying its 300,000 field agents, who repeatedly went on strike and even torched electoral offices.

It spent about $11 million more than its $19 million budget for salaries during voter enrollment last year, said Simon-Pierre Nanitelamio of the U.N. Development Fund.

Nanitelamio said the extra money was spent because it became impossible to verify thousands of fraudulent salary claims from people who often threatened to disrupt election preparations unless their demands were met.

Experts estimate the election, the largest and most expensive ever overseen by the United Nations, will cost around $1 billion, half of it on logistics.

Much of eastern Congo remains a war zone years after conflict officially ended in the country.

In the east, candidates have hardly campaigned outside big cities. Despite efforts by the Congolese army and 17,600 U.N. peacekeepers to secure the region, militiamen control territory inhabited by millions of Congolese.

U.N. military bases near militia-held regions will serve as voting stations in the east, but for thousands of Congolese, the journey to the ballot box may be too dangerous.

A December referendum that passed without incident served as a test run, with over 15 million voters turning out at some 31,000 polling stations to approve a constitution that paved the way for July’s elections.

But that vote needed only two-thirds of the polling stations that will open on July 30, and voters chose only between ``Yes″ and ``No.″

This time 33 candidates are seeking the presidency, over 9,000 are contesting 500 seats in parliament, and 10,500 are competing for seats in 26 provincial assemblies.

Voters will therefore struggle with enormous multipage ballot sheets listing hundreds of candidates. In Kinshasa, the capital, the ballot in four of the districts runs to six pages, each nearly three feet by three feet, featuring name, photo and party symbol of over 800 candidates for 17 seats.

It presented ``the difficult task of designing the biggest ballot ever,″ said Carmina Sanchis-Ruescas of IFES, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that helped draw up the pages.

``We will have to use thousands of extra ballot boxes just to fit in all the sheets,″ said Flavien Misoni, an electoral commission officer. ``That’s just one of the difficulties the ballot has introduced.″

Nationwide, ballots will be transported to 62 bureaus equipped with satellite communications to send counts to Kinshasa.

``Of course there will be imperfections,″ said Diabacte. ``But it will be the beginning of democracy in Congo.″