ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we take you to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a fire has engulfed an election commission warehouse in the capital just nine days before the much-anticipated presidential vote. Key election equipment was destroyed ahead of what should be Congo's first democratic transfer of power. Officials suspect arson. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The fire erupted 200 yards away from one of the capital's newest and most modern military camps. Grey smoke is still billowing high into Kinshasa's blue skies hours after the election commission's main storage depot in the city went up in flames. The authorities say they suspect criminals.
CORNEILLE NANGAA: (Speaking French).
QUIST-ARCTON: Corneille Nangaa heads Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission that this year introduced the unpopular and untested Korean-manufactured voting machines. He says the fire is a serious blow but has pledged that the long-delayed elections will go ahead on December 23. The fire destroyed thousands of the voting machines as well as ballot boxes, upwards of two thirds of the equipment destined for Kinshasa. Nangaa says surplus election material dispatched to other parts of Congo will be returned to the capital. The opposition is crying foul.
FELIX TSHISEKEDI: (Speaking French).
QUIST-ARCTON: Opposition presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi says the Congolese authorities must be held responsible because they were in charge of security at the depot. The fire has left voters somewhat bewildered, like 27-year-old Herve Lonji.
HERVE LONJI: (Speaking French).
QUIST-ARCTON: Walking past the wall outside the charred remains of the election equipment warehouse, Lonji said the Congolese want stability and a level of trust in the electoral process.
LONJI: (Speaking French).
QUIST-ARCTON: "And," he says, "we just want to vote. We want change, and we want peace. We're tired of war." Campaigning has been mostly peaceful, but tension rose several notches this week after clashes between the police and opposition supporters. Some deaths were reported in outgoing president Joseph Kabila's stronghold in Lubumbashi and in Mbuji-Mayi. But many Congolese, Lonji included, have their doubts that the presidential vote will happen on time.
LONJI: (Speaking French).
QUIST-ARCTON: This will be Congo's first time trying out voting machines. The opposition fears they could be used to rig the vote. Others question how Congo's notorious power cuts and lamentable infrastructure will make using such a machine feasible. Kabila, who is poised to step down after almost 18 years as president, played down the controversy in an interview with NPR earlier this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PRESIDENT JOSEPH KABILA: I'd like to allay the fears of each and everybody that the idea of using this particular equipment is because we wanted to make sure that our elections were flawless.
QUIST-ARCTON: The election commission says ballot counting will be manual. But there are still opposition fears the machines may muddy the vote count and call into question Congo's presidential election results. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kinshasa.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN & THE BAD PLUS' "DIRTY BLONDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.