Voting in Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-anticipated presidential election got off to a shaky start on Sunday due to torrential rain in the capital and long delays at some polling stations in the east.
Three opposition strongholds will see no casting of ballots at all after the authorities cancelled the vote there, citing health risks from an on going Ebola outbreak and ethnic violence.
President Joseph Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, is due to step down after the vote in the first democratic transition for a country plagued by authoritarian rule, coups and civil wars since independence from Belgium in 1960.
Kabila voted early in the morning in the capital Kinshasa at the same school as the candidate he is backing, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, whom the latest opinion polls showed trailing two opposition candidates.
“My only concern is that we have this very heavy rain, and so the voting time might be long, but hopefully the skies will clear,” Kabila, wearing a dark blue suit, told reporters.
In the eastern city of Goma, where the weather was clear, a Reuters witness saw residents casting their votes, but another polling station in the city was still closed 90 minutes after polls opened at 6 a.m (0400 GMT).
“The majority of voters here are stressed,” said Kayembe Mvita Dido, first in a line of dozens waiting at a polling station in the shadows of the towering Nyiragongo volcano.
“Some do not even know how to use the voting machine,” hesaid, referring to a new electronic voting system, criticised by the opposition as vulnerable to fraud.
Streets in Kinshasa were flooded due to a violent storm that appeared to have knocked out the power in two polling stations visited by Reuters, although that should not affect the machines whose batteries are meant to be charged ahead of time.
Another station was not able to open on time due to a lack of electoral witnesses, and some voters complained they could not find their names on the lists at their polling place.
Despite repeated delays to the election, which was originally meant to take place in 2016, diplomats and poll observers have said authorities are ill-prepared, raising fearsof a repeat of the violence that followed elections in 2006 and2011.
Kabila’s agreement to stick to constitutional term limits should represent progress for the mineral-rich central African country.
Critics, however, say they doubt the vote will be untarnished by fraud, and that Kabila could continue to rule from the sidelines. He has not ruled out running again for president in 2023.
Violent protests erupted this week after authorities announced that voting had been cancelled in the Ebola-hit eastern cities of Beni and Butembo, their surrounding areas and the western city of Yumbi. Together, they account for more than1.2 million out of 40 million voters nationwide.
In Beni, dozens of voters lined up on Sunday morning to write their choices on sheets of paper, but were dispersed by police who fired into the air, residents said.
Foreign diplomats told Reuters on Friday that only about 60percent of voting materials across the country were in place, and election observers said polling stations in the capital Kinshasa would struggle to accommodate all voters during voting hours.
OPPONENTS FEAR VOTE RIGGING
Opponents of Kabila say the government is trying to tip the election in favour of Shadary.
The most recent poll released by New York University’s Congo Research Group on Friday showed former Exxon Mobil manager and opposition lawmaker Martin Fayulu leading the race on 47percent, buoyed by discontent with Kabila’s 18-year tenure.
Under Kabila, Congo has seen strong economic growth from surging copper and cobalt output but only meagre improvements to average people’s quality of life.
Another opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, trailed in thepoll with 24%, while Shadary got 19 %. “I will vote for Martin Fayulu,” said Mama Wivine, 40 and unemployed, as she waited for the machine to arrive at her polling place in Kinshasa’s Camp Luka neighbourhood. “We hope he can bring jobs and better conditions for us Congolese. We are fed up with the regime of Kabila.”
Both Fayulu and Tshisekedi have spoken confidently of victory, but Shadary has big institutional advantages, including round-the-clock coverage on state media. Kabila appointees also dominate national institutions.
“Tomorrow I will be president,” Shadary told Reuters on Saturday by phone.
His opponents accuse the ruling coalition of preparing outright vote rigging, with much of their scepticism focused on largely untested electronic voting machines that are being used for the first time.
The national electoral commission (CENI) has tried to reassure the opposition by saying that only print-outs from the machines counted by hand will be factored into the official results.
But any disputed outcome could lead to a wider security breakdown across Congo, particularly along its eastern borders with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, where dozens of armed militia are active.
The last polls close at 5 p.m., although voting will continue for those still in line. Voters are also choosing representatives for the national and provincial assemblies.