Congo elections pushed back again

Congo 's long-delayed elections have been pushed back again, likely at least week beyond the earlier scheduled June 18 date, an electoral commission spokeswoman said Tuesday. The vote is to be the first in decades in this sprawling and war-ravaged central African country. Congo has repeatedly set back the vote as logistical problems continue to plague the process.

Electoral Commission spokeswoman Marie-Rose Kambere said Congo needed more time to process candidate applications after granting a 10-day extension such presidential and parliamentary filings Thursday. Only some 400 people had paid the $250 fee to contest the 500-seat parliament as of then, according to electoral commission officials. Some 30 presidential hopefuls have registered.

"The 10-day delay for the deposit of presidential dossiers will impact the electoral calendar and delay the elections from the current date of 18 June," Kambere said. She said that polls were likely to be scheduled between June 25 and July 2. "We will announce the new calendar after April 2," Kambere said.

The delay may create a window for veteran opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi to enter the presidential race. Tshisekedi, who originally planned to boycott the election, has said he will now run, but only if the voter registration process is reopened so his supporters can enroll. Many of Tshisekedi's followers missed the original registration deadline because of his boycott call. The electoral commission has refused Tshisekedi's request, insisting that would be costly and delay elections further.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan met with Tshisekedi last week and stressed in speeches during his visit to the country that the elections must be as inclusive as possible, a condition of the 2002 peace deals that Tshisekedi signed. Elections were initially set to occur by June 2005, but poor planning and legislative problems delayed the vote. Officials then set a March deadline and finally decided on the June date in February.

The voting is being organized by a transitional government that was established in 2003 following peace deals that ended the nation's devastating 1998-2002 war, a conflict that drew in armies from six nations. The transitional constitution lapses June 30.

Congo , particularly eastern regions, remains restive, complicating plans for the vote. European Union governments last week agreed to send hundreds of troops in support of U.N. peacekeepers in Congo for the elections. The mission, meant to back Congo police in keeping order during and after the vote, is due to deploy ahead of the expected June elections.

On a visit to the European Parliament Tuesday, the head of Congo's electoral commission, Apollinaire Malu-Malu, urged the EU to ensure the force is "well equipped ... to act as a proper deterrent." He said the EU force, which include about 450 soldiers in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, with around 1,000 outside the country on standby, will be expected to "stay for several months" after the election results are announced.

The European Parliament is also expected to send a team of election observers, EU officials said. At the European Parliament, Malu-Malu also asked for funds to ensure voters have all necessary information ahead of the elections. He did not elaborate on the additional amount needed but called the US$40 million ( Ђ 33.3 million) budgeted insufficient. Malu-Malu also called for government authorities to make sure that all candidates get equal air time on radio stations, reports the AP.


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