Page last updated at 08:44 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 09:44 UK

Angola's hi-tech election

Luanda's central business district

By Louise Redvers
BBC News, Luanda

Angolans go to the polls on Friday to elect a new parliament - the first election in 16 years - and no expense has been spared in the preparations.

It was never going to be easy holding an election in a country after so many years of war with damaged infrastructure and millions of displaced people.

But as polling day approaches, it seems as if the authorities may be about to pull it off.

Not everywhere is accessible by road, so we are using helicopters and in some cases boats to make sure we can reach everyone
Adao de Almeida
National Electoral Commission

More than eight million people have been registered using an anti-fraud system of cards with holograms, pictures and fingerprints, and there is no shortage of publicity material encouraging citizens to vote - some of it being sent out via mobile phone text messages.

The electoral commission is setting up polling stations on oil rigs and helicopters will collect ballot papers from some remote voting stations while satellite and solar-powered fax machines will send lists from others.

And for those who have lost their voting cards, more than 6,000 hand-held computers will be used at polling stations to help people access their details and registration number.

'On the dot'

Angola's National Electoral Commission (CNE) spokesman Adao de Almeida explains: "It's been three years of work to prepare.

A young Angolan passes by a giant peace dove
The civil war raged for 27 years and killed 50,000 people

"But today we can say that with just a few days to go, we have things organised so that on the fifth of September we will be opening the polling stations at 0700 [local time] on the dot, ready to start collecting votes.

The challenges have been many, as Mr de Almeida outlines:

"Because we haven't had elections for 16 years, a large number of people have never participated in an election before.

"We also have a very large country and people are very dispersed.

"And not everywhere is accessible by road, so we are using helicopters and in some cases boats to make sure we can reach everyone."

"We know that the eyes of Angola and of the world will be on Angola and on us, the commission," he says.

'Logistical problems'

EU Observer Mission electoral expert Barbara Smith agrees that the logistical problems are "absolutely enormous", also pointing to the problem of land mines and the lack of a recent census, so the authorities do not know where the population actually is.

Map of Angola

"One problem is that a number of people are registered according to their identification documents, not where they live, so there is challenge for everyone to find their correct voting station," she said.

Ms Smith notes how the CNE is trying to overcome these challenges through the use of modern technology.

"They have people on the street with PDAs which can look up people's polling locations, you can also swipe your registration cards in machines in banks and airports, and there are numbers to call and SMS and of course a website."

Expensive exercise

But Angola's hi-tech approach has not come cheap.

The original budget of $84m is thought to have as much as quadrupled, partly to pay for new buildings, hire international expertise and fund the 14 parties taking part.

To ensure this money is well spent, there are observers from the European Union, the United States, the Southern African Development Committee (SADC) and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos
Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been president for 29 years

There are also Angolan observers who will also be watching polling activity to check the correct processes are being followed and there is no fraud.

These national observers have shared little of the spotlight so far.

But Lizangela Furtado, a trainer with the Angolan National Civil Society Electoral Platform, says their participation is paramount: "It is very important that we as civil society in Angola participate in the observation of these elections despite the presence of other observer missions.

"We know better our laws and we know better the context which these laws have to be applied, and it is us who interact more with the general public in the country.

"And when the whole process is over and when everything seems to have calmed down and all other international missions will go, we will remain."

The election is just days away, and in bars and offices and on street corners and in shops, little else is being talked about.

It is not quite fingers on the buzzers - although with this much technology involved - perhaps it should be.

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