Congo's election due on Monday will test the giant country's tentative steps towards recovery after decades of upheaval, but rushed last-minute preparations have raised fears of a chaotic vote and a disputed outcome.
At stake in the presidential and parliamentary votes is the readiness of mineral-rich Congo to turn a page on years of war and fulfil its potential as a motor for economic growth at the crossroads of eastern, central and southern Africa.
President Joseph Kabila is tipped for re-election in a field of 11. No fewer than 18,500 candidates are also vying for 500 parliament seats in an election with some voting slips as big as broadsheet newspapers to fit in all the names of hopefuls.
Some 32 million are eligible to vote in a nation two-thirds the size of the European Union but which is still plagued by unrest eight years after the end of a 1998-2003 war that sucked in half a dozen nations and left over five million people dead, mostly from disease or starvation.
With just days until polling in one of the most complex logistical operations ever undertaken for a vote, nagging doubts remained as to whether it could go ahead on time.
U.N. peacekeepers aided by helicopters from South Africa and Angola were airlifting voting materials to hubs across the country from where they would continue, in places by canoe or down bush paths, to some 60,000 polling stations.
It's going to be a nightmare, however the leadership of the entire region is being mobilized, said Nosiviwe Mapusa-Nqakula, head of the Southern Africa's SADC observation mission.
Many analysts say a delay or some sort of rolling vote is unavoidable, unless swathes of voters are to miss out. According to budget figures seen by Reuters, the vote will cost at least $700 million (451.8 million pounds) but the final figure could be much higher.
Congo's first post-war election in 2006 was meant to draw a line under the recent war. This time around the vote should take stock on steps to put the country back together.
A World Bank report called Resilience of an African Giant highlights signs of progress and the gaping gaps that remain.
Maternal deaths are in decline and the number of children going to primary school is on the up. Yet less than a quarter of the population has access to drinking water, only one in ten have electricity and only four of the country's provincial capitals can be reached by road from Kinshasa, it said.
After years of turmoil, expectations of many in Kinshasa, the teeming capital of some ten million people, remain low.
The Congolese people just want peace and peace will come with a calm election, said Leon Masuwa, a janitor in a city apartment block.
Despite slow progress in delivering on promised infrastructure revamps and the failure to stamp out rebellions and abuses in eastern Congo, Kabila, 40, enjoys the advantages of incumbency and will still go into the race as favourite.
He has been boosted by his rivals failing to unite around a single candidate and constitutional changes this year limiting the vote to a single round -- meaning the winner need not obtain an absolute majority.
However, even before the first vote is cast, there have been repeated warnings that delays in the process and the lack of transparency in the way it is being managed may lead to trouble.
An internal EU observer mission report flagged abuse of authority by Kabila's camp, which it said was using state assets to campaign. Meanwhile opposition supporters had faced interference and sought backing and money abroad, it added.
For weeks, vast billboards with Kabila's face and campaign motto 100 percent for the president have adorned street corners while his rivals offerings are few and far between.
Expecting a challenge to the results whichever way they go, international observers have also questioned the transparency of Congo's Supreme Court, which must handle any election complaints and confirm the winner of the poll.
FORTUNES OF A CONTINENT
After years of decline, copper, cobalt and gold output is ticking upwards and oil firms are positioning themselves to tap into virtually untouched and potentially huge reserves.
Tracts of forests and arable land await development while the mighty Congo river provides the potential for dams that could power much of Africa.
The country's fortunes are potentially integral to the broader fortunes of the entire continent, the World Bank said.
But (such) hopes will only materialise if the country is able to boost its growth and development significantly through effective leadership.
SADC's Mapusa-Nqakula said any trouble would not just hurt the Congolese but the entire southern region of Africa.
Congo's east remains a complex web of conflicts over issues like land and minerals, sometimes involving players from neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Ties with Angola, which has oil and diamond interests near their shared border, are fragile.
Azarius Ruberwa, an ex-rebel leader and leading lawyer, said the vote was an important step in building a democratic culture but he played down hopes of any rapid changes.
...These elections will not fundamentally change the situation in the country, sadly. Perhaps the situation won't plummet into chaos like lots of people are saying ... but (things) will continue going very badly, he said.
(Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich)