Computer sabotage uncovered in S. Africa vote tally, judge says


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Computer sabotage has been discovered in reporting the results of South Africa's first democratic election, further delaying the already stiflingly slow count of votes, the chairman of South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission charged yesterday.

Judge Johann Kriegler told a news conference that just after 6 a.m. Tuesday, the computer that was sending results to the news media was altered in a way that gave some parties extra votes.

"There was some tampering with the data in our main system," he said. "It's not clear how it was done, but we do know when."

He refused to reveal which parties were affected or how many voters were involved. But his statement did explain why no new vote totals had been released since Tuesday afternoon, when abouthalf the estimated 22 million votes had been tallied.

After discovering the glitch in the computer and launching an internal investigation before handing the matter over to the police, the commission turned to a backup hand compilation that was running behind the computer tally, Judge Kriegler said.

It was expected to catch up sometime last night, and the flow of results was supposed to begin again. Judge Kriegler remained confident that the final tally, and the declaration that the election was free and fair, would be made in time for the new provincial legislatures to meet Saturday and the national Parliament Monday, a session already delayed from Friday.

It is that national body that will choose the president, so its AfricanNational Congress (ANC) majority must cast its votes for Nelson Mandela Monday if he is to get his scheduled inauguration Tuesday.

Judge Kriegler did note that, by law, the commission has 10 days after the close of the polls to announce the results, which would give it until Monday night. Indeed, he warned officials weeks ago not to schedule the inauguration for May 10 because of potential problems with the tally.

Though the transition process in South Africa never met a deadline it couldn't ignore, Judge Kriegler said, "we are doing everything in our power" to meet this one.

There are still many important questions to be answered: Will the ANC get two-thirds of the seats in the new Parliament? Will the Inkatha Freedom Party win in KwaZulu/Natal? Will the ANC get a majority in the Northern Cape? But the vote count has taken on an anticlimactic aura since Monday, when F. W. de Klerk conceded and NelsonMandela claimed victory.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After all, exit polls, which have robbed U.S. presidential elections of suspense, were outlawed.

With the election scheduled to end last Thursday, a weekend of high drama was expected as South Africa watched to see how its historic vote would turn out.

Instead, it has turned out to be low comedy. The results came out in incomprehensible dribs and drabs. Because there was no way to ascertain exactly where the numbers were from, it was impossible to analyze their meaning.

Rotating anchor teams grew more and more disheveled and exhausted. Occasionally, a music video showed up to fill some dead time.

There are a variety of reasons for the slow vote count. One is simply the unavoidable clumsiness when paper ballots must be counted by hand. Beyond that is the fact that so many parties made so many challenges of irregularities at so many polling stations.

Judge Kriegler cataloged a number of these allegations yesterday: ballot box stuffing, ballot boxes whose contents were in neatly stacked piles, phantom polling stations run by people other than commission officials, improperly opened ballot boxes, ballot boxes that were allegedly filled with grass.

"One problem is that we are dealing with inexperienced people," he noted. "And not just our staff, but the representatives of the political parties as well.

"Old pols tend to solve disputes rather quickly. But some of these people haggle about things for hours, so they might lose a day before getting around to counting."

But Judge Kriegler said all those disputes have been resolved, the counting has been completed at all but one Natal station and, once various paperwork is completed, most of the results will be released today.

Or maybe tomorrow.

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