Congo count slips into chaos as monitors depart

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The Independent Online

Vote-counting in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is descending into chaos, nearly two weeks after the country held its first democratic poll in more than 40 years, international observers have warned.

The results trickling in show a clear east-west split, with the current president, Joseph Kabila, overwhelmingly popular in the eastern, polling as high as 90 per cent in some towns.

His main opponent, the former warlord and current vice-president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is the frontrunner in the capital, Kinshasa, and other regions in the west - although some of the anti-Kabila vote has also gone to the Harvard-educated surgeon, Oscar Kashala.

Election day passed off peacefully, and most observers agreed that the poll had been organised relatively smoothly. But problems appear to have begun once the process of collating the votes from more than 53,000 polling stations spread across a country the size of western Europe.

In Kinshasa, observers reported seeing ballot papers burned and dumped en masse. In other parts of the country, election observers have been barred from counting centres. Although eight international observing missions were in the DRC on election day, most observers have now left, leaving a threadbare team to ensure the process passes off smoothly.

"The problem is we've all buggered off," said one international observer. "A lot of thought and effort went into the roll-out process - getting all the ballot papers and infrastructure out to all the polling stations. But no thought has gone into the 'roll in'. The counting centre in Kinshasa is an absolute nightmare, papers flying all over the place."

Pressure from the UN and donor countries has been put on the independent electoral commission to get results published as soon as possible. The longer the period between voting and results, the more scope there is for suspicion that the results are not accurate.

The lack of infrastructure in a country with only 30 miles of paved roads has also caused problems. The South African government offered to send helicopters to pick up ballot boxes in the hardest to reach places, but the UN, which is spending $1.1bn (£580m) a year in the DRC, could not afford the fuel costs. The DRC has been ravaged by war over the past 10 years and many of the major political players are former militia leaders. The fear is that complaints over the validity of the election could spill over into renewed violence.

Already Mr Bemba and another current vice-president, Azarias Ruberwa, have questioned the legitimacy of the poll. Mr Ruberwa, whose Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) party is expected to lose a lot of support in the east to Mr Kabila, has said he will challenge the result at the Supreme Court.

"The danger is one candidate starts claiming victory when they haven't won," said the observer. "When the results come out it could be chaos."

Jacqueline Chenard, spokeswoman for the UN in North Kivu in the east, said there had been no trouble so far. "Things are going smoothly," she said. "The interesting thing will be how people react in Kinshasa."

Mr Kabila has very little support in Kinshasa. During the campaign, he was mobbed by supporters in the east, but his rallies in the capital drew far smaller crowds than those for Mr Bemba and Mr Kashala. One Western diplomat said: "Kinshasa simply will not believe Kabila is that popular in the east. There is a huge danger that the country will be split down the middle, between east and west."

Mr Kabila will remain as president if he gains more than 50 per cent of the vote. Otherwise, there will be a run-off between the top two - probably Mr Kabila and Mr Bemba - on 29 October.

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