More than 25 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are expected to flock to the polls tomorrow for the first time in the nation's war-ravaged recent history.
The run-up to the landmark election, the first in more than 40 years, has been marred by sporadic violence and there are fears that armed militia operating in vast swaths of the country's eastern regions will try to prevent voters getting to polling stations.
But it will, nonetheless, be a step forward for a country which has only recently emerged from a devastating, decade-long civil war.
Although the election is supposed to be completed in one day, it is likely to continue until everyone waiting in line has voted. Voting is expected to be slow as a nation that has never voted in proper elections grapples with ballot papers the size of a table cloth. At a dry run held in the Congolese capital Kinshasa earlier this month, electors took, on average, 28 minutes to cast their vote. Polling stations have been provided with lamps to allow them to carry on through the night. Some election observers predict polling stations could stay open until Tuesday.
If no candidate gets 50 per cent, the top two will run off in a second round, likely to be in October. Joseph Kabila, president of the transitional government and son of Laurent Kabila, the man who led the rebellion which ousted Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, is widely expected to top the poll.
But in a race with 33 presidential candidates, there are several people who could emerge in second place, ranging from former warlords such as Jean-Pierre Bemba, to Oskar Kashala, a Harvard-educated doctor who is backed by some US senators.
Mr Kabila's stranglehold on the press, and the thuggish behaviour of his 14,000-strong presidential guard, has raised fears that Sunday's historic poll will not be the free and fair election that the international community has promised.
Mr Kabila's publicity broadcasts run constantly on state television. His rivals, meanwhile, are limited to small segments played one after another. More worryingly, at least three independent journalists who criticised Mr Kabila have been murdered in recent weeks.
The UN operation in the DRC, known as Monuc, has been trying to keep a lid on the pre-election violence. Ross Mountain, the UN's top official yesterday in the DRC, admitted the poll would "not be perfect". "There are a lot of physical obstacles," he said. "The capacity for things to go wrong is fairly well developed here." In the North Kivu region in eastern DRC, voters say that the militia groups which still roam the bush have threatened to prevent people going to the polls.
There is a consensus among international observers that the presence of 17,000 UN troops is preventing the country from sliding back into the civil war which killed four million people. But there are growing fears among humanitarian groups and UN personnel that the UN Security Council may scale down operations once elections have taken place. It is the largest peacekeeping force in the world, costing £590m a year.
A UN force is due to move into Sudan's violent Darfur region in January, and the current crisis in the Lebanon is also likely to require more troops. The current UN mandate in the DRC runs out at the end of September and Monuc officials in the country privately admit that the number of troops may be cut.
A senior humanitarian worker operating in the DRC said: "The UN sees the elections as an exit strategy. They want to get out of here as fast as possible."Reuse content