The DR Congo was on edge Saturday as officials delayed the announcement of preliminary results from a crucial presidential election amid growing pressure from world powers to respect voters’ wishes.

Preliminary results, scheduled for release Sunday, will now come out only next week, the head of the country’s electoral commission told AFP just hours before the deadline.

“It is not possible to publish the results on Sunday. We are making progress, but we do not have everything yet,” Corneille Nangaa said.

A new date has not been announced.

The December 30 vote saw 21 candidates run to replace President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the vast, conflict-ridden country for almost 18 years.

Among the frontrunners were Kabila’s handpicked successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary and two opposition candidates: veteran heavyweight Felix Tshisekedi and newcomer Martin Fayulu.

At stake is the political stewardship of a mineral-rich country that has never known a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

Kabila had been due to step down two years ago, but managed to cling on to power, sparking widespread protests which were brutally repressed, killing dozens.

Sunday’s vote, preceded by repeated delays, was relatively peaceful. But tensions have built over the lengthy counting process, amid fears the results could be manipulated to install Kabila-backed Shadary in power.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) had promised to announce preliminary results on Sunday, followed by a definitive count on January 15.

The new president would be sworn in three days later.

But Nangaa told AFP less than half of ballots had been counted by Saturday afternoon, adding: “Next week, we will announce.”

The move could stoke tension in the unstable central African nation of  80 million.

Nangaa has blamed the slow count on massive logistical problems in a country the size of Western Europe with poor infrastructure.

– ‘Publish the truth’ –

Since the vote, the authorities have cut internet access and blocked broadcasts by Radio France Internationale, causing widespread frustration.

With international concerns growing over the transfer of power in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest nation, Western powers have upped the pressure.

The United States and European Union urged Kinshasa to ensure a peaceful change of power.

Donald Trump announced Friday the United States was sending about 80 troops to Gabon to deploy in the event of election-related unrest in nearby DR Congo.

The African Union, which had sent an 80-member team to monitor the vote, insisted that respecting voters’ wishes was “crucial”.

And Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the DR Congo’s western neighbour, the Republic of Congo, urged restraint in uncertain times to “safeguard peace and stability in this brother country”.

The DR Congo’s powerful Catholic Church, which provided more than 40,000 election observers, said Thursday it knew who had won the vote, but did not reveal who it was.

The National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), which represents the country’s Catholic bishops and has been at the forefront of protests calling for Kabila to step down, urged the electoral commission to publish the results “in keeping with truth and justice”.

– Anger at the church –

But the ruling FCC coalition accused CENCO of “seriously breaching” the constitution and electoral law by “illegally declaring voting trends” in favour of a given candidate.

The last two elections in 2006 and 2011, both won by Kabila, were marred by bloodshed, and many feared a repeat if the results this time round were placed in doubt.

In 2006, Kabila defeated former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba in a violence-tainted poll.

Five years later, he was re-elected in another vote blighted by bloodshed, chaotic organisation and alleged irregularities.

Those results were rejected by the opposition.

Between 1996 and 2003, DR Congo lived through two fully-fledged wars that claimed millions of lives through fighting, starvation, and disease.