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Congo Elections: Opposition Candidates Call To Annul Vote

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CONGO ELECTIONS OPPOSITION
Presidential ballot papers sit on a table in Lubumbashi on November 28, 2011 at the close of polling for the Democratic Republic of the Congo's presidential elections. | Getty
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KINSHASA, Congo — For the past two days, Chantal Pande has set her alarm for 4:30 a.m., putting on her makeup and arriving before first light at the polling station where she's been assigned to vote in Congo's momentous election.

Each day she waited from dawn until dark, queuing at one of the 485 vote centers that as of Wednesday morning still hadn't received ballots in this giant nation attempting to organize its first election since the end of its civil war.

In Africa, it's difficult to pull off a transparent election even in countries that have held them regulary. This is only the third one in Congo's 51-year history. The country straddles the belly of the continent, stretching out over an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. Only 2 percent of its roads are paved.

It's polling stations are located on the flanks of mountains inhabited by gorillas; on the banks of rivers where the only mode of transport is by canoe; on islands in the middle of lakes; and deep in rain forests still controlled by rebel armies.

The government missed nearly every deadline leading up to the election. It didn't print enough ballots. Those that were printed weren't delivered in time, forcing hundreds of polling stations to open late. Some didn't open at all, a combustible mix in a country whose back-to-back wars dragged in at least nine neighboring nations.

"I want to vote. I made my choice and I want to express it. It's my right," said Pande, an unemployed mother of four, who sat inside a deserted polling station clasping a yellow purse in which she had carefully folded her voting card. "I've been here every day since 5. I'm discouraged. I'm losing hope. Do you think they'll bring the ballots?"

Congo's body temperature is rising and already three of the 11 presidential candidates have called for the vote to be annulled. In pockets throughout the country, poll workers have been attacked, trucks transporting ballots have been ransacked and vote centers set on fire. Riot police fought back angry mobs with tear gas in the capital, including outside the cinderblock elementary school where Pande is registered.

The vote that began Monday was supposed to mark another step toward peace, but if the results are not accepted by the population, analysts fear it could drag Congo back into conflict. The government decided to hold the vote despite the obvious technical glitches because incumbent President Joseph Kabila's term expires next week.

Since Monday, the election commission has issued two, one-day extensions to allow additional time for porters carrying ballots on their heads to reach the most distant communities.

"The electoral commission had an enormous dilemna dropped in its lap," said John Stremlau, who is heading the 70-member observation mission from the Carter Center. "You either have the election on time, which risks being botched by inadequate preparations, or you violate the constitutional mandate."

The late and uneven distribution of ballots has thrown a cloud of suspicion over the process. Opposition candidates are claiming fraud, and mobs have torn apart ballots being delivered to polling stations after rumors spread they had been filled-in ahead of time.

Observers say they have documented irregularities including possible instances of fraud, though it's not clear whether they are widespread enough to change the election's outcome.

"It's too early to say," said Stremlau. "Is it systemic? Or is it just bad management? At the moment, it would appear to be the product of a rushed election with enormous complexity."

Election commission president Daniel Ngoy Mulunda said that more than 99 percent of voting districts had functioned normally, and as of Wednesday only 485 out of 61,380 polling stations had been unable to complete voting.

The drama is playing out in places like the Boniface elementary school that serves as the central voting bureau in one of the capital's slums. The doors and windows of the classrooms, a section of the school's wall and several wooden bunks were destroyed by voters who finally reached the boiling point Monday after it became clear no ballots were on their way.

On Tuesday when porters finally arrived with bundles of ballots on their heads, skirting a pool of black mud surrounding the school, the crowd cheered.

Inside, however, were just 600 ballots for a center serving 13,000 registered voters, said the president of the voting district, Jacques Kabombo.

"The people rebelled," he said. "They pulled apart the wall of the school with their hands. I even lost the shoes on my feet."

It was finally Wednesday afternoon that a jeep arrived carrying the missing ballots. Pande was among the first to vote.

When night fell, they discovered what else was missing. The jeep had brought them the ballots, the necessary paperwork, the ink. The electric lanterns were there too. One per polling station in this nation where most of the capital is unlit after dark. But there were no batteries.

At nearly midnight, voters were using their cellphones to see the names on the ballot. In one classroom, they had stopped going behind the voting screen.

When their turn came, they picked up the ballot and walked to the opposite end of the room. The only thing you could see looking in their direction was the square of light emanating from their cellphone screen.

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Associated Press writers Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report.