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DR Congo voters face hurdles ahead of poll

KINSHASA - Problems are plaguing the electoral process in the Democratic Republic of Congo, just two weeks ahead of polling, with many voters rushing to replace illegible voter cards. 

The impoverished central African nation is due hold presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections on December 20. 

President Felix Tshisekedi, who took office in 2019 after a disputed election, is running for a second term.

Some 20 other candidates are standing for the presidency, but only a handful have the funds for nationwide campaigning. 

The DRC is a huge country, roughly the size of continental western Europe, with dire road infrastructure. It is currently rainy season, making the roads worse, and swathes of the east is lawless and plagued by armed groups. 

Criticisms of the electoral process also abound. Opposition figures have accused the government of stacking the electoral commission, known as the CENI, as well as in the Constitutional Court, the final arbitrator in case of electoral disputes. 

There are fears the final result will be contested. 

The DRC's democracy is relatively new. Its first multiparty election after the 32-year reign of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was held in 2006.

"The Congo is in the process of consolidating its democracy," government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said recently. 

But beyond politics, the electoral process is also plagued by technical problems. 

- Faded cards -

Across the capital Kinshasa, and elsewhere in the country, voters are queueing up at the last minute to replace their voter-registration cards. 

Congolese voters registered for this month's election between December last year and March, and received cards enabling them to cast ballots.

The DRC does not have ID cards, and passports are too costly for most people in the country, so the voter-registration cards are crucial. 

But an unidentified number of these cards have since faded almost clean, with most of the writing illegible. Would-be voters have been trying to get replacement cards over the past few weeks. 

"I've been here since 9.30 am," said agronomist Gregoire-Dieudonne Kaykolongo, in the mid-afternoon at a CENI branch in the Kinshasa commune of Lingwala. 

He showed AFP his current voter card -- now almost blank. "I can't vote with a card like this," the 75-year-old said.

The cards are supposed to be delivered free of charge, but there are widespread reports of corrupt agents demanding money for replacements. President Tshisekedi deplored the practice last month. 

Still, some people are reassured that something is being done. 

In Lingwala, Joseph Mwendanga, who is standing for the national assembly, said he could see that people were working to tackle the issue. 

"I was worried, I didn't think there would be elections," he said.

Fears of a delayed election -- known locally as a "glissement," or "sliding", in French -- are also widespread.

However, CENI chairman Denis Kadima has held firm and repeatedly promised that the election will take [place on time on December 20.

The European Union announced on Thursday that its election observation mission for the elections will go ahead, but with only eight experts.

Last week the EU said it was cancelling its deployment of election observers throughout the country for "technical" reasons.

Several sources told AFP that DR Congo had refused to authorise satellite equipment for EU election observers over fears it would be used to manipulate the presidential poll which will be held alongside parliamentary elections.

- by Annie Thomas

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