October 19, 2011 / 8:15 PM / in 6 years

Logistics hurdles could force Congo polls delay

* Congo polls scheduled for Nov. 28

* Serious threats to holding the elections - Carter Centre

* Voting materials, ballot papers still to be shipped to Congo

By Jonny Hogg

KINSHASA, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Delays in drawing up the voter register and delivering electoral materials are posing a serious threat to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second post-war polls, due in November, with some saying the elections may be postponed.

The polls are seen as a crucial step towards stabilising the vast minerals-rich country, which is still recovering from a vicious civil war that ended in 2003 with more than 5 million people dead.

The electoral commission and its partners, including the United Nations, say the November 28 date is still achievable despite growing skepticism in diplomatic and political circles.

Any delay risks sparking a political crisis, with a leading opposition party saying it will no longer recognise the government of Joseph Kabila if the polls are put back.

More than 120,000 ballot boxes are still to be delivered from China, and the printing of thousands of tonnes of ballot papers in South Africa is only just getting under way according to the electoral commission.

U.S. watchdog group the Carter Center said in a statement: “There are serious threats to holding the election on Nov. 28 that must be addressed now.”

With little over a month to go until polling day, in a country the size of western Europe and with virtually no roads, it would be a “miracle” if a credible poll happened on time said Oscar Kashala, a presidential candidate.

“I will be extremely surprised if there are elections on November 28. If you look at what is happening it’s almost impossible to hold fair and transparent elections (in time),” Kashala, leader of the UREC party, told Reuters.

The electoral commission, known as CENI, needs to double its efforts if elections are to go ahead in November, said Baya Kara, head of the electoral observation team for the Carter Center.

The CENI has yet to explain how it will get everything done on time, including a legal requirement to publish voter lists in 62,000 polling stations across the country by the end of the month, despite having not yet published the map identifying where each polling station will be, Kara said.

“(If everything happens) as quickly as possible, the date of November 28 can be maintained, but it will be a challenge, and that requires strong guarantees,” she said.

Congo is receiving additional logistics support from the international community, including the UN peacekeeping mission and South Africa, who have agreed to deliver the ballot papers once they’re printed.

FRESH UPHEAVAL

The CENI also held a crisis meeting with the government last week to unlock additional funds, according to the commission’s deputy spokesman, Laurent Ndaye.

“We explained to the prime minister the likely delays to the process if the funds for certain steps aren’t disbursed... He said they would do everything to make the funds available,” Ndaye said, without giving exact figures.

Amidst spiralling costs -- the budget for the entire electoral process including provincial and local elections is expected to reach $1.2 billion -- the electoral commission and other partners already know the process must be delayed, an expert close to the process told Reuters.

“They are extremely late on logistics, even later than they were ... Even diplomats who were previously positive, are now saying they are obliged to postpone (the polls),” said the Congo-based election expert, who asked not to be named.

The decision to delay may not be announced until after campaigning has begun at the end of October to minimise the risk of parties boycotting in protest, the expert said.

Any attempt to hold only the presidential vote in November would likely be blocked by the opposition and international partners, fearing it would hand a parliamentary landslide to the new president when polls are held later.

More than eighty political parties backing the candidature of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi said on Tuesday they would not accept the “de facto” government of Joseph Kabila if the elections are postponed, according to a document seen by Reuters.

“The Congolese Political Opposition is ready to assume its full responsibilities if on December 6 the new president is not elected,” the group said, in reference to the date they say Kabila will no longer be constitutionally recognised as president.

Kabila will remain the legal president until elections are held according to Professor Philippe Biyoya, a constitutional and political expert at Kinshasa University.

However dialogue between CENI and rival political parties would be essential for the country avoid fresh upheaval, Biyoya said, adding that an acceptable process is more important than holding the vote on time.

“If everyone has the same understanding (of the reasons for the delay), I believe we need not fear a crisis,” he added. (Editing by Bate Felix)

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