Voters in three Congolese cities known as opposition strongholds will be excluded from presidential elections on security and health grounds, officials said, in a move that looks certain to inflame political tensions before Sunday’s ballot.
The national electoral commission (CENI) said an Ebola outbreak - the second-worst in history - was behind the postponement of voting until March in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo cities of Beni and Butembo and surrounding areas. It cited ethnic violence for the same delay in the western city of Yumbi.
The election is meant to lead to the first democratic transfer of power in DRC, Africa’s leading copper producer and whose conflicts have in the past destabilized the entire central part of the continent.
Kizito Bin Hangi, the president of civil society groups in Beni, told Reuters the state-controlled CENI’s decision was unjustified and that residents would start protests on Thursday to demand the vote go ahead there.
Leading opposition candidate Martin Fayulu had earlier on Wednesday warned the CENI against any move to shelve voting in Beni and Butembo. “The pretext of Ebola is fallacious because there has been campaigning in these areas. It’s yet another strategy to hijack the truth of the polls,” he tweeted.
Paul Tshilumbu, a spokesman for the UDPS party of the other main opposition candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, told Reuters Tshisekedi would participate in Sunday’s vote despite the CENI’s announcement.
The elections - also incorporating legislative and provincial polls - were originally meant to take place in 2016. They have been repeatedly postponed since then, sparking violence in which security forces have killed dozens of people.
The CENI pushed the election date back by seven more days last week due to delays deploying voting materials.
Explaining the three exclusions, it said on Wednesday: “Elections lead to important movements of voters toward polling places, thus leading to concentrations of people ... raising the risk of propagation of this disease and providing the conditions for terrorist attacks.”
Voting elsewhere in the vast central African nation would go ahead on Sunday as planned. Final results for the presidential vote would be announced on Jan. 15, with the new president sworn in on Jan. 18, the CENI said.
It did not explain how votes in Beni, Butembo and Yumbi would be accounted for in the result.
The three cities, which account for more than 1.2 million of Congo’s roughly 40 million registered voters, are known as bastions of opposition to outgoing President Joseph Kabila, who is supporting his former interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, in the race.
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Longtime President Kabila, 47, has governed since his father’s assassination in 2001. He won elections in 2006 and 2011, although the latter was marred by widespread accusations of fraud.
Besides the Ebola outbreak, Beni and its surrounding areas have suffered repeated militia attacks over the last four years that have killed hundreds of civilians. In Yumbi, more than 100 people died in ethnic violence last week.