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.
Three opposition strongholds will see no casting of ballots at all after the authorities cancelled the vote there, citing health risks from an ongoing Ebola outbreak and ethnic violence.
Some polling places in other opposition bastions in the capital Kinshasa did not open until more than seven hours after the 6 a.m. (0500 GMT) start because voter rolls had not arrived.
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.
The Catholic bishops conference (CENCO) said electronic voting machines, criticized by the opposition as vulnerable to fraud, had dysfunctioned in at least 544 of 12,300 polling places it monitored. It also said 846 polling stations were installed in “prohibited places” like military and police posts.
Some voters also 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 favour.
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.
Reuters could not independently confirm the allegations, and 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”.
Despite repeated delays to the contest, 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 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 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 the Central African country’s 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.
Voting was mostly peaceful across the country, but there were a few violent incidents. 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 were also reported around polling sites, pressuring people to vote for their preferred candidates, a Western diplomat 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 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 meagre improvements to average people’s quality of life.
Another opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, trailed in the poll with 24 per cent, while Shadary got 19 per cent.
“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.”
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.
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.
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. (1600 GMT), although voting will continue for those still in line.
Voters are also choosing representatives for the national and provincial assemblies.