Long queues, broken-down machines and torrential rain in the capital disrupted voting in Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-anticipated presidential poll on Sunday, as the opposition alleged widespread irregularities.
Polling stations remained open after the scheduled 5 p.m. closing time as long queues of people were still waiting to cast their ballots after many stations opened hours later than promised.
While voting was mostly peaceful across the country, there were incidents of violence.
At a polling station in South Kivu province in eastern Congo, a police officer shot and killed a young man after a dispute over alleged voting fraud. The surrounding crowd then beat the officer to death, a witness and a local politician said.
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 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,” Kabila, wearing a dark blue suit, told reporters.
At three opposition strongholds, in the east and west of the country, there was no casting of ballots at all after authorities canceled the vote, citing health risks from an ongoing Ebola outbreak and ethnic unrest.
The Catholic bishops conference (CENCO) said electronic voting machines, criticized by the opposition as vulnerable to fraud, had malfunctioned in at least 544 of 12,300 polling places it monitored around the country.
Congo is about 40 percent Catholic and Pope Francis offered prayers for the country in a weekly address at the Vatican. “I hope everyone works to maintain a peaceful climate that allows regular and peaceful elections,” he 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.
Vital Kamerhe, the campaign director for Felix Tshisekedi, one of the two leading opposition candidates in the race, said he had received reports of fraud in Shadary’s favor.
In the western city of Inongo, Kamerhe said, the head of a polling place was found voting several times for Shadary and three machines there were converting votes for Tshisekedi into votes for Shadary.
The national electoral commission (CENI) said in a tweet that in Inongo and several other cities, “voting operations are underway and everything is going well”.
Ballot-counting was scheduled to start once polls closed. The elections were also for representatives for the national and provincial assemblies.
Despite repeated delays to the contest, which was originally meant to take place in 2016, diplomats and poll observers have said authorities were 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 country. But he could continue to exercise influence from the sidelines and has not ruled out running again for president in 2023.
Violent protests erupted this week after authorities announced that voting had been canceled in the Ebola-hit eastern cities of Beni and Butembo, their surrounding areas and the western city of Yumbi, which account for more than 1.2 million out of 40 million Congolese voters.
In Beni, dozens of voters lined up on Sunday morning to write their choices on sheets of paper, residents said.
In the central city of Kananga, the head of a polling place was beaten up by voters who suspected him of trying to cheat when he moved a broken-down voting machine from the room, two local activists said.
In eastern Congo’s Masisi territory, militia fighters “supervised” polling places and pressured voters to choose their preferred candidates, said Cosmas Kangakolo, the Masisi territorial administrator.
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 percent, 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 meager improvements to average people’s quality of life.
Another opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, trailed in the poll with 24 percent, while Shadary got 19 percent.
“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 neighborhood. “We hope he can bring jobs and better conditions for us Congolese. We are fed up with the regime of Kabila.”
After voting in Kinshasa, Fayulu said: “Today, we mark the end of Mr. Kabila, the end of the misery of the Congolese people.”
But Shadary has big institutional advantages, including round-the-clock coverage on state media.
Kabila appointees also dominate national institutions.
“I think victory is on my side and that tonight I will be president,” Shadary said after casting his ballot.
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.