Church leaders in Congo say election observers are critical

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Catholic leaders who mediated a compromise on elections in Congo warned Monday that the credibility of the long-delayed vote scheduled in December depends "to a great extent" on the presence of national and international observers — and that "bias" will keep the country in crisis.

Monsignor Marcel Utembi, president of the National Episcopal Conference known as CENCO, encouraged the government to implement all provisions of the Dec. 31, 2016 agreement that it mediated — especially de-escalation measures — and to take into account concerns of opponents and civil society.

"If elections are biased, they will keep us in a crisis ... and the lack of clarification in the situation will cause grave problems," he warned.

The vast, mineral-rich nation is under pressure to ensure free and fair elections.

President Joseph Kabila, who became Congo's leader in 2001 after the assassination of his father, former President Laurent Kabila, by law could not run again after his mandate ended in December 2016. But he remained in office because of delays in holding elections, which sparked deadly protests.

Kabila announced last month that he would not try to stay in office, giving one of Africa's most turbulent nations the opportunity for what could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power. But there are concerns, raised not only by CENCO but by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and other council members, that Kabila will try to ensure that his chosen candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, will win.

Utembi outlined a series of recommendations from CENCO to the government and electoral commission to ensure fair elections including: agree to facilitate national and international observation of the elections; reach consensus on whether to use voting machines; and prevent "arbitrary application of rules to certain candidates who wish to run."

The opposition and some in the international community, including the United States, are objecting to the planned use of electronic voting machines despite warnings from watchdog groups that transparency and credibility could suffer. In response, Congo's government declared it will fund the election itself and has not asked for help from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country.

Haley raised a series of "red flags and unanswered questions" at Monday's council meeting including about the voting machines.

She asked: Will there be enough machines? Can authorities recharge them with only a 12-hour battery life? Have election organizers widely tested them? How is the electoral commission going to transport election materials to more than 90,000 polling places? Will voters know how to use touchscreens? Are organizers preparing paper ballots as a back-up?

"Paper ballots were good enough to get president Kabila elected, and they should be good enough as a fail-safe to elect his successor," Haley said, adding that if the president was at the U.N. today she would ask whether self-financing the election and doing it without help from the U.N. peacekeeping mission is possible.

"It can't help but raise suspicion when the Congolese government refuses the assistance that would help make free, fair and credible elections a reality, but continue to take the humanitarian assistance that so many of us continue to give them," she said.

Haley said other "red flags" add to U.S. suspicions including the electoral commission's Aug. 24 decision "to disqualify some opposition presidential candidates for what appear to be political reasons."

Opposition candidates must be allowed to speak freely, without fear or harassment so that all parties compete "on a level playing field," she said.

With 118 days left before the election, Haley said, "these problems are fixable," and the hopes of 80 million Congolese citizens for a free and fair vote rest on the decisions the government and electoral commission make in the days and weeks ahead.