Long queues, broken-down machines and torrential rain in the capital disrupted voting in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) long-anticipated presidential poll on Sunday, as election officials scrambled to deploy missing voters’ rolls.
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.
Elections are a rare event in Congo, which has been plagued by authoritarian rule, assassinations, coups and civil wars since independence from Belgium in 1960. If President Joseph Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, steps down after the vote it will be the country’s first ever democratic transition.
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 probably voter turnout might be low but hopefully the skies will clear and the voters will turn out in numbers,” says Kabila.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference (CENCO) said voting had not started on time at 830 polling stations, equivalent to about one-fifth of the stations across the country where it had deployed observers. It also said 846 polling stations were installed in “prohibited places” like military and police posts.
“Some (voters) do not even know how to use the voting machine,” said Kayembe Mvita Dido, who was waiting in line at a polling station in the eastern city of Goma, in the shadows of the towering Nyiragongo volcano.
He was referring to the new electronic voting system, criticised by the opposition as vulnerable to fraud. Several machines broke down in Kinshasa, Goma and Bukavu, bringing voting in some places to a halt, witnesses said.
Some voters complained they could not find their names on the rolls and flooded streets in Kinshasa prevented others from reaching their polling stations.
In the Kinshasa district of Limete, an opposition stronghold, voting had not begun in at least nine polling stations as of 12:30 p.m. because voting rolls had not arrived.
Militia fighters in eastern Congo’s Masisi territory were also reported around polling sites, where they were pressuring people to vote for their preferred candidates.
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 fears of a repeat of the violence that followed elections in 2006 and 2011.
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 than 1.2 million out of 40 million voters nationwide and are all considered opposition bastions.
In Beni, dozens of voters lined up on Sunday morning to write their choices on sheets of paper, residents said.
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 47% , 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 the poll with 24% while Shadary got 19%.
“I think victory is on my side and that tonight I will be president,” Shadary said after casting his ballot.
The CENI has tried to reassure the opposition about the voting machines by saying that only print-outs from the machines counted by hand will be factored into the official results.
However, 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.
Voters are also choosing representatives for the national and provincial assemblies.
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