Congo's Disputed Election

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A resident of Kinshasa looks at ballot papers from the election in the Congo at an open liaison office of the Electoral Commission in Kinshasa last week.

The Democratic Republic of Congo's first free election in four decades went off with few hitches and few reports of violence on July 30. Millions of voters visited 50,000 polling stations to decide between the 9,700 candidates running for parliament and the 32 candidates for the presidency. Despite early claims from minor presidential candidates that the vote was rigged, foreign election observers said the polling process was mostly free and fair.

But counting the votes is proving much more troublesome. Foreign observers say voting papers have been dumped, materials from different polling stations mixed together, often in the back of trucks, and some voting tallies altered. Lobby group Human Rights Watch says that foreign observers in the east of Congo, a nation that sprawls across central Africa and is as big as the U.S. east of the Mississippi, were also being hindered in their work.

The irregularities have prompted many parties to claim victory for their candidates even before preliminary results are known. The claims and counterclaims are adding to the chaos. "Biased leaflets proclaiming one candidate or another as winner are being distributed or even sold," Theophile Mbemba Fundu, the interior minister, said last weekend. The aim of parties was to "engender a psychosis of fear in order to trick the population into contesting the results."

The International Committee in Support of the Transition (CIAT), which is made up of ambassadors of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and South Africa, warned last week that making claims before votes were counted "threatened public order". "The media relays and amplifies this phenomenon by bombarding the population with figures that are all over the place," said a CIAT statement.

Election observers from the Carter Center are urging Congo's electoral commission to win back voters' confidence by making the count more transparent, cross-checking results with the results obtained by observers in polling stations and extending the time allowed for people to lodge an official protest after results are posted. Colin Stewart, co-director of the Carter Center's DRC field office told TIME that the "logistical mess up" will create dangerous ambiguities unless it is dealt with quickly.

Congo's electoral commission has already taken some steps to clean up the mess — investigating a suspicious fire that destroyed used and unused ballots at a Kinshasa election center and attempting to reconstitute the results by checking polling station reports, for instance. But unless they take better control of the count, which still has weeks to run, suspicions will linger that many of Congo's voters were robbed. "We're not saying we've seen widespread fraud. We have seen some but not anything systematic," says Stewart. "But because of all the ambiguities we're not in a position to say that it hasn't happened either."