DAKAR, Senegal — Congo's government is moving forward with plans to use electronic voting machines in this year's highly anticipated presidential election despite warnings from watchdog groups that transparency and credibility could suffer.
The vast, mineral-rich nation is under pressure to ensure a fair election in December amid concerns that President Joseph Kabila, in office since 2001, will try to run again or hold on to power. He has remained after his mandate ended in late 2016 as the election has been delayed.
While Kabila cannot legally stand for a third term, the opposition worries he will. Already the election delays have been met with deadly protests.
As candidates face an August deadline to declare, the voting machines have become a focus of growing concern that the vote could be manipulated.
They threaten "electoral transparency as well as the overall credibility of Congo's electoral process," says a report released Wednesday by The Sentry, an investigative group focusing on the financial networks behind conflicts in Africa.
The machines ordered by Congo's government are made by South Korean firm Miru Systems Co., which created machines for the Argentine elections in 2017. The machines ultimately were not selected for use in those elections because of security issues that made them vulnerable to hackers, said Sasha Lezhnev, deputy director of policy at the Enough Project, a watchdog group that works with The Sentry.
"The Congolese government seems to be moving ahead without addressing these major issues," Lezhnev said.
In a radio broadcast on Tuesday, the spokesman for Congo's electoral commission said the voting machines are meant to reduce both election costs and the waiting period for results.
"It's not a machine to cheat," Jean-Pierre Kalamba told Top Congo FM, adding that the goal is to get the machines into "every nook and cranny" of the country. The electoral commission plans to use more than 100,000 of them.
The voting machines cost about $160 million, according to the Congo Research Group, an independent research project. In a report earlier this year it said two of three machines that Congo wanted to test in gubernatorial elections in August malfunctioned before the vote.
The machines also raise concerns that many of Congo's more than 40 million registered voters will have trouble casting ballots with the unfamiliar technology. The electoral commission has estimated it will take just one minute for each person to vote; the polls are open for 11 hours.
Despite demands by Congo's three main opposition parties that the voting machines not be used in the upcoming election, the president of the electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, has warned that without them "there will be no elections on December 23, 2018."
The United States is among those objecting to Congo's use of an electronic voting system. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has said the election must be held by paper ballot to ensure credibility, adding that the unfamiliar technology poses an "enormous risk."
In response to international pressure over the vote, Congo's government has said it will fund the election itself in an effort to defend what it called its national sovereignty.
Still, "the U.S. government, European Union and African Union have a key window right now over these next couple of weeks to influence the Congolese government" on key election decisions including whether to move ahead with the machines, Lezhnev said. "This is not a done deal."
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo contributed.
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Carley Petesch, The Associated Press