By Aaron Ross and David Lewis
DAKAR/NAIROBI (Reuters) - 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 Dec. 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 organize a referendum that would let him seek a new term, as leaders have done in neighboring 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 organizing the election, told Reuters this week that Congo was still on course to hold the election on Dec. 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.
The election commission's insistence on using the voting machines poses a dilemma for foreign donors: either they back a potentially flawed vote or withhold support, though this might be seen by Kabila as a reason to delay the vote.
Donors are loath to choose the second option. They have gambled that concerted pressure on the authorities to respect the election date will bring about Congo's first peaceful transition of power.
"People don't want to torpedo everything ... suggested by CENI," said a foreign diplomat. "It is not in our interests to dismiss electronic voting technology and then see it used as a pretext for delays."
However, backing a vote at all costs carries its own risks. The 2006 election caused days of fighting in Kinshasa and the 2011 vote was riddled with irregularities.
Corneille Nangaa, the national election commission's president, did not respond to an interview request or written questions sent to his spokeswoman. He has said using the machines will more than halve the weight of election equipment and save over $100 million.
Election officials initially described them as a system of "electronic voting" but, because of a lack of clarity over whether they are legal in Congo, changed the wording to "semi-electronic voting" and then to "a voting machine".
Donors are wary. They have disbursed only a fraction of the $123 million the United Nations expected to set aside for elections in Congo as they await clarification on how the voting will be conducted.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned Congolese authorities last month to use paper ballots or lose U.S. support because using an electronic voting system could undermine the credibility of the election.
Some people are worried because of what happened in Kenya, a far more developed and connected nation where voter identification technology failed in half of polling places in 2013 and concerns about the reliability of electronic vote tallies led the Supreme Court last year to order the presidential vote to be re-run.
Namibia was the first African country to use electronic voting in a national election in 2014 but it has only 1.2 million registered voters compared to Congo's 46 million and the official rollout followed extensive testing in by-elections.
With 100,000 machines in service over 11 hours of voting as stipulated by law, each voter in Congo would have under 90 seconds to select candidates in presidential, legislative and provincial elections and print out the ballot.
Most voters will be seeing the machines for the first time. A quarter of Congolese are illiterate and are likely to require assistance. Other pitfalls abound, say diplomats following the process, including intense humidity in tropical zones.
After listening to a presentation by Nangaa last month, Congo's influential Catholic bishops called for certification of the machines by international experts.
It is not clear that the commission has put in place measures to maintain the machines and install necessary software.
Election authorities have released few details about the machines' acquisition except to say they come from South Korea. Eight machines arrived in Kinshasa in January and 200 more last week, the commission said, but it has not indicated when the full complement will arrive.
(Additional reporting by Yuna Park in Seoul and Amedee Mwarabu in Kinshasa, Editing by Timothy Heritage)