Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Kinshasa — The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) began testing voting machines as part of a new system that civil-society groups said would undermine the credibility of long-awaited elections that seek to end the central African nation’s political crisis.

The new technology will be used in the vote scheduled for December 23 to pick a successor to President Joseph Kabila. His decision to remain in office beyond the end of his final term in December 2016 has spurred protests in which dozens of people have been killed and may have further fueled rebellions in Congo’s mineral-rich east, where more than 100 armed groups operate.

Civil-society group Agir pour les Elections Transparentes voiced concern over a lack of transparency around the machines’ procurement and the difficulty of operating them in a country with millions of illiterate people and unreliable electricity supplies.

The system "will have an impact on the credibility of the vote because it’ll allow for fraud", spokesperson Gerard Bisambu said Monday at a conference in Johannesburg.

The electoral commission, known by its French acronym Ceni, said it has delivered some machines to five of Congo’s 26 provinces and a campaign was under way to educate at least 80% of voters on their use. The new system was better than paper ballots and would prevent fraud, spokesperson Onesime Kukatula said by phone.

Peaceful transfer

"It will allow us to have two sources of verification — the manual printout and the data, which will be given by the accounting of the machines," he said.

Kabila, who’s ruled for 17 years, is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. The DRC has never had a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium almost six decades ago.

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Africa’s biggest copper producer have been delayed by two years because the commission said it faced financial and logistical hurdles. It’s not yet clear who Kabila’s ruling coalition will nominate as its candidate. The opposition accuses the president of trying to cling to power, an allegation he denies.

The only other African country to have used machines similar to the ones the DRC wants to distribute is Namibia, according to the Congo Research Group at New York University. With 1.2-million voters, Namibia tested the system in four local elections before using it for 2014 national elections, the group said on its website. The DRC has about 46-million voters.

Ceni may buy as many as 107,000 voting machines from a South Korean company, including one for each of the 84,000 polling stations and thousands as backup, according to the Congo Research Group. Ceni’s spokesman said he doesn’t know when the company will deliver the majority of them.

"The way in which the Ceni introduced voting machines has undermined public trust in an already controversial electoral process," the group said on its website Monday. "The use of voting machines could foment chaos on election day."