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First Vote in Decades Tests Congo's Fragile Truce

"Nobody is taking care of our people," Kombe said in French, the main language here. "Every day, we see people dying because they are too poor to go to the hospital. They are dying of hunger. People are dying for lack of money."

"Now," Kombe said, "the people want to vote."

Ali-Diabacte said it would take nearly $500 million to cover the enormous difficulties of staging an election in a nation with virtually no infrastructure. He said it cost $120 million for an eight-month effort last year to register more than 25 million voters and provide them each with a state-of-the-art biometric identification card. It cost another $50 million to have 66 million ballots (33 million for president and 33 million for the National Assembly) printed in South Africa and delivered to Congo.

The cost of the election, Ali-Diabacte said, was in addition to the U.N.'s $1.3 billion annual budget in Congo, of which the United States contributes about 27 percent.

Ali-Diabacte, who has worked on 10 postwar elections in countries from Haiti to Chad, said Congo's massive size and nearly total lack of roads outside of the capital posed massive logistical problems. He ticked off the formidable election statistics: 33 presidential candidates, 9,707 National Assembly candidates for 500 seats, 187 political parties represented.

"The ballots alone weigh 1,800 tons," he said.

Ali-Diabacte said they will be distributed to Congo's 10 provinces by U.N. planes, then taken to polling stations by car or bicycle, by boat down the Congo River or on foot. Some of the 53,000 polling stations are so remote that election workers will have to walk for 10 days down jungle paths to deliver the ballots.

U.N. officials are training more than 300,000 election workers, and a new 40,000-member police force is being trained so at least one officer can accompany ballots at all times. A 2,000-troop European Union military force will be on hand to provide extra security during the elections.

The ballots are among "the most difficult ballots in the world," Ali-Diabacte said.

In Kinshasa, for example, each ballot for the National Assembly will consist of six poster-sized sheets of paper, with the name, photo, party name and party logo of more than 3,000 candidates for 17 National Assembly seats. Voters will have to scan the cumbersome stacks of paper, identify the candidates in their district, and vote for just one.

While reliable polling is hard to come by in Congo, analysts said Kabila is the most likely favorite because of his national name recognition. But three of the four vice presidents are running and are also well-known. The field is rounded out by former ministers, children and widows of former presidents and prime ministers, a Harvard-educated physician from Massachusetts and a pair of sisters.

Meece and Ali-Diabacte said it was unlikely that a new president would be sworn in before the end of the year. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on July 30, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff later this year. No dates have been set, but they said it would be impossible to count the votes, stage the runoff and resolve inevitable court challenges before the end of December.

"This could be a difficult period," Meece said. "But it really represents the best shot at getting things right here."

Some Congolese, long accustomed to corruption and fraud, complained that the United Nations and the European Union -- another key financial backer of the elections -- have rigged the vote to favor Kabila. Several hundred marched in Kinshasa recently to protest, saying the elections should be delayed.

"They should not impose elections on us, and the people are going to stand up against imposed power," said Denise Lupeti, one of the march organizers.

Tom Tshibangu, 45, a writer and government worker, said the perception of rigged elections could be dangerous in a country where disputes are often settled with guns and machetes.

"We don't want elections to lead to more conflict," he said. "We are afraid that should we go to elections the wrong way, we might see more dead bodies in the streets of Kinshasa."

But his friend Peter Myamusenge, 43, who spends Sunday afternoons with a group of professionals practicing English, said critics of the elections were being "too demanding."

"There's so much corruption, it's difficult all of a sudden to change everything," he said. "We can't do something perfect with this rotten situation. But we have to start somewhere."

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