When election officials unveiled voting machines that resemble large tablet computers in Democratic Republic of Congo, they hailed them as the solution to a multitude of problems.
The new technology, they said, would cut costs, help reduce electoral fraud and accelerate the counting of votes in the vast central African country where past elections have been marred by voting irregularities or violence.
The national election commission (CENI) sees the voting machines as vital for holding long-delayed elections on December 23 that will choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila, who refused to step down when his mandate expired in December 2016.
It proved an inauspicious start. The voting machine, imported from South Korea, broke down when it was demonstrated to a parliamentary commission in the capital, Kinshasa, a member of the committee told Reuters.
“If we have these problems in Kinshasa, what hope is there for the rest of the country?” said the committee member, parliamentarian Toussaint Alonga.
One of the machines also malfunctioned during a presentation to two opposition parties last month, the parties’ leaders said.
The parties, the Union for the Congolese Nation and Movement for the Liberation of Congo, later issued a joint statement saying they rejected the machines’ use.
The election commission says the election will not go ahead without the new technology. Kabila’s opponents fear it will cause chaos and increase the risk of fraud or voting irregularities that could lead to protests and violence.
They fear the President is looking for a pretext to delay the election until he can organise a referendum that would let him seek a new term, as leaders have done in neighbouring Congo Republic and Rwanda.
Western governments and investors regard the election as a crucial step towards ending political instability that is impeding investment in Congo, which is rich in natural resources but mired in poverty and economic and humanitarian crises.
With the new technology, votes are cast by tapping the names of candidates listed on a screen. The voting machine then prints a ballot paper with those choices, sparing the need to pre-print large ballots with the names and photos of dozens of candidates.
The technology has never been used in a major election and doubts about the reliability of Congo’s power supply and the machines’ functionality in the sweltering heat have increased fears that voting will be marred by chaos.
Brushing aside the concerns, the election commission plans to roll out roughly 100,000 of the voting machines in Congo, which is the size of western Europe, on voting day.
Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala, whose transitional “unity” government is organising the election, told Reuters this week that Congo was still on course to hold the election on December 23.
Much is at stake for the oil-producing country of about 80 million which has the largest output of copper in Africa and is the source of over half the world’s cobalt, an ingredient in mobile phone and electric vehicle batteries.
Kabila, 46, has ruled Congo since his father was assassinated in 2001. Failure to hold the election in December could embolden militia groups whose attacks have increased since Kabila’s mandate expired and have forced many people to flee their homes, deepening a severe humanitarian crisis.
The unrest has caused fears that Congo could slide into a new civil war like one that killed millions at the turn of the century.