KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo -- Putting on elections in Congo is a daunting task.
The vast Central African country, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, has few passable roads and armed rebel movements in the east and south. The man many Congolese would choose as their next president is not running in today's elections, and the hugely respected Roman Catholic Church, one of the few functioning institutions in a deeply dysfunctional state, is threatening to demand a boycott of the country's first democratic polls in more than 40 years.
With 33 presidential candidates and 9,600 parliamentary hopefuls vying for office, Congo's road-map-size foldout ballot has six pages and is so bulky that flying 1,800 tons of them into the country took 75 aircraft. Getting the ballots transferred to 46,000 remote polling places, often by helicopter or boat through thick rain forest, and providing security and salaries for an army of election staff is costing international donors $3 million a day.
"It's a massive operation," said William Lacy Swing, a former U.S. diplomat and the United Nations' lead official in Congo. But if the long-awaited elections can help bring lasting peace to sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest country, where nearly 4 million people have perished from conflict-related causes since 1998, "that could change the face of Africa," he said. "It could have greater positive impact than ending any other conflict on the continent," including that in Darfur.
The question for many anxious Congolese and international officials, however, is whether today's landmark elections will be the start of lasting peace - or the spark that reignites all-out war.
One of the most powerful presidential challengers, Vice President and former warlord Jean Pierre Bemba, has hinted he might reactivate his private militia if the results of the poll are seen as less than free and fair. Joseph Kabila, Congo's current leader and the favorite to win the presidential polling, is widely popular but also dismissed by detractors as a foreigner - he was raised in Tanzania - and as a puppet of foreign leaders eager to get their hands on Congo's vast mineral wealth.
Perhaps most worrying, a million-voter discrepancy in the 26 million-strong voter registration rolls - a problem election officials blame on computer crashes, typing errors and at least one sunken boat full of registration cards - has raised suspicions among many Congolese that today's vote will be something less than transparent.
"A big part of the population won't accept the results of the election," said the Rev. Francois Luyeye, a priest in Kinshasa with close ties to the country's Catholic Bishops' Conference. The Catholic Church, which has waged an enormous voter education campaign across the country, has called for a delay in voting to clarify issues such as the voter registration discrepancy and to pressure candidates, including Bemba, to accept the results. Without such problems being solved, "we are headed straight to war," Luyeye said.
Election officials, however, say a delay in the polling is impossible, if only because funding is running out.
"Technically and financially it's very difficult. It would be like pouring money out the window. The international community supporting us isn't ready to accept that," said Emmanuel Diabassana, an Independent Electoral Commission coordinator in Kinshasa.
Flawed elections will not necessarily lead to new conflict. After enduring a series of dictators and warlords, two wars in the past decade, continued brutality in the east sparked by 9,000 rebel militiamen, and widespread poverty, disease and infrastructure collapse, most of Congo's exhausted 63 million people just want peace and a chance at a better life.
"I think the worst is past. People do not want to go back to war," said Henri Eleko, 60, a retired Ministry of Agriculture bureaucrat who used to be required to force his office staff to vote for former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. "Politicians and the church say the elections are a masquerade," he said. "But we will vote because we are tired of not having elections."
In sprawling Kinshasa, on the banks of the Congo River, nearly every vertical surface is plastered in campaign posters. Bemba's campaign convoy races around town with police and soldiers armed with rocket launchers barreling behind. Kabila supporters toss yellow caps from campaign vans but are sometimes met by roars of disapproval and crowds trying to burn down his billboards.
A few people have died at opposition rallies in Congo's troubled east, and Kabila was stoned at a rally this month, but mostly the campaign has been peaceful.
The one name notably not on the presidential ballot is that of 74-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi, a widely admired opposition leader who long fought for multiparty democracy and against Mobutu's corrupt 32-year rule. Citing concerns that elections were being rushed and would not be fair, he declined to run, leaving his legions of supporters frustrated and wondering where to turn.
One major worry in Congo is that international backers may see today's vote as the end of a transition to peace and democracy, rather than the start. The United States, the main contributor to the $1 billion annual budget for 17,500 U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, is eager to move troops on to other conflicts. But a premature pullout could sink chances for lasting peace as Congolese expectations rise in the aftermath of the election, Swing said.
"Elections don't magically change a country," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Human Rights Watch expert on Congo. "It's what happens after the elections that will decide whether this country turns a corner."
Laurie Goering writes for the Chicago Tribune.