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Africa's 2005 Elections Present Challenges

Major elections are scheduled to take place in Central and West Africa in 2005, including in several post-conflict areas. Experts agree challenges will be enormous for these to be free, fair and credible.

In the coming year, campaigns for presidential elections should take place in four post-conflict countries: the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The first of these polls, scheduled for February 13 in the CAR, is already being tarnished by allegations that former coup leader-turned president and now candidate, General Francois Bozize, has handpicked his opponents. Main opposition leaders, including former President Ange-Felix Patasse, have been barred from running, on technicalities.

Regional human rights campaigner Alioune Tine warns holding the election in this context could make things worse, rather than better.

"It is a threat, it's a threat," he said. "I think that the United Nations must be very narrowly implicated to this process and the African Union too. I think that there is some sense about these elections to get another civil war in Central Africa."

The second presidential election in the region is scheduled in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for late June.

London-based Africa analyst for the World Markets Research Center Gus Selassie says this may be too early. He cites ongoing insecurity as a main obstacle.

"Unless you want to get a credible election then it would probably be more sensible to wait until the conditions are in place to have such an election," he said. "Otherwise, you're just going to create a problem by giving legitimacy to someone who would win the ballot by default, almost."

When electoral officials also suggested a possible delay this week, thousands of angry protesters took to the streets of the capital, Kinshasa.

Whenever the ballot takes place, Congolese President Joseph Kabila is expected to defeat former rebel leaders and opposition politicians.

In Liberia, the peace deal prevents members of the transitional government, including Chairman Gyude Bryant, from running. One early candidate is soccer legend George Weah.

But analyst Mike McGovern, from the International Crisis Group, says more aid money is needed for the elections to go off successfully, as scheduled, in mid-October.

"I would say the international support has been middling. Not all the money that's been promised has been given and that money really needs to come especially to facilitate the reintegration of ex-combatants and the repatriation of refugees," he said. "If you don't have those two pieces of the puzzle well before the elections - let's say four to six months before the election - it's going to be very difficult to organize credible and legitimate elections. And that takes money. It takes logistics. It takes planning, but it also takes money."

Four days after Liberians vote, their neighbors in Ivory Coast are scheduled to hold their own presidential ballot.

The stalled Ivorian peace deal is supposed to ease eligibility requirements, paving the way for popular northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara to take part.

But Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo wants a referendum to approve that change.

Analyst Alex Vines from the British Royal Institute of International Affairs says, if the French-brokered deal known as "Marcoussis" is applied as initially intended, Mr. Gbagbo may, in fact, lose the vote.

Mr. Vines says this explains Mr. Gbagbo's reluctance to fully and quickly implement it.

"Mr. Gbagbo would basically have to face an election that he might not be in the best position to be returned on," he said. "The problem is what else is there to replace Marcoussis. This is not something that anybody is really talking about. And, there isn't much appetite to restart a negotiation for a new deal at this stage."

All four post-conflict areas are also having difficulties establishing voter lists.

Other elections, later in the year, will be in Gabon and Burkina Faso. Human rights observer Alioune Tine says the two long-time presidents there - Omar Bongo and Blaise Compaore - will pretend to have democratic elections, as long as they are returned to power.

He says, even if there is not war in those countries, it is still a very unfortunate situation for citizens.

"The rules of democracy and elections are not very fair and we have poverty," said Mr. Tine. "Presidents who are a long time in power their countries have some problems. I think time is up for United Nations and the African Union to be very narrowly implicated in the civil society of Africa."

While prospects for democratic progress look bleak in 2005, Mr. Tine says 2004 was encouraging.

The year ended with presidential elections - deemed free and fair - both in Niger and Ghana.