KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — It was a scene of anarchy at the warehouse where trucks were arriving with ballots from Congo's momentous election. Mountains of bags were piled up in the parking lot. Some had burst open, and tally sheets were flying in the wind.
Others had fallen in the grass, in the mud or on the concrete floor of the counting center and were being trampled by poll workers. It was hours before election officials on Thursday were able to find a way to get most of the bags inside.
"It's embarrassing," said poll worker Chantal Mbunda whose job it is to fill in sheets compiling votes for the candidates. "We're doing our best to do the work properly. But things are slipping through. The organization is zero. The victim in all of this is the population."
Congo's government missed nearly every deadline leading up to the election that began Monday. It didn't print enough ballots. Those that were printed weren't delivered in time, causing millions of voters to be turned away. Some polling stations didn't open until days later, a combustible mix in a country whose back-to-back wars dragged in at least nine neighboring nations.
With voting finally wrapping up Thursday, the election is now moving into the next phase. Like the process of voting, the process of counting the ballots that were cast is plagued by massive logistical challenges.
In Africa, it's difficult to pull off a transparent election even in countries that hold them regularly. This is only the second democratic election in Congo's 51-year history and only 2 percent of the country's roads are paved.
Polling stations are located on the flanks of mountains inhabited by gorillas, and on the banks of rivers where the only mode of transport is by canoe. They are on islands in the middle of lakes. Or deep in rain forests controlled by rebel armies.
International observers say they noted irregularities in numerous polling stations, but it's too early to say if the anomalies are part of a larger pattern that could change the outcome of the results. Three of the 11 candidates running for president signed a letter calling for the vote to be annulled.
"My guess is that when the evaluation is finally done it will show a lot of shortcomings," said John Stremlau, who is heading the 70-member observation mission from the Carter Center. "But if we can get a credible counting process — and that is a big 'if' — then from what we saw yesterday my impression is that the people of this country will figure out a way to get their voices heard."
A senior observer with a different international organization, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that the disorder can be exploited by the ruling party, which has the majority of seats on the election commission.
President Joseph Kabila is seeking a second term and his popularity has taken a nosedive in the capital, which is located in the Lingala-speaking region of the country, a language he has never learned.
In 2006, he lost the vote in the capital and was buoyed to victory by the high percentage of votes he received in the Swahili-speaking east, the language he has spoken since childhood.
This time, he faces competitors in the east including his former campaign aide Vital Kamerhe, a former speaker of parliament, who is now seeking to topple his former boss.
"They wanted to create a mess," said the senior observer, "and around this mess, you can cheat. ... It's so easy to cheat in these conditions. The vote now depends on the good will of the CENI (the Kabila-controlled election commission)," he said. "And the problem is that when the results are announced, there is already suspicion."
Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi already proclaimed himself president before the start of the vote. His aides have continued to give confident press conferences, and observers that have met him say that the candidate thinks he is assured of victory. It's a dangerous concoction in a nation battered by nearly 15 years of civil war.
Unemployed men in the capital sell trinkets at traffic lights, weaving through traffic including key chains, party favors, maps of Congo. On Thursday in neighborhoods favorable to Tshisekedi, they were selling a $1 result sheet, showing preliminary tallies from different provinces. Tshisekedi, according to this version of the election, was leading.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report.