Delays, storms mar start to Congo's presidential vote

Agents of Congo's CENI prepare to open a poling station in Kinshasa [Courtesy]

 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.

President Joseph Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, is due to step down after the vote in a milestone for a country plagued by authoritarian rule, coups and civil wars since independence from Belgium in 1960.

A Reuters witness in the eastern city of Goma 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 to vote at a polling station in the shadows of the towering Nyiragongo volcano.

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“Some do not even know how to use the voting machine,” he said, referring to a new electronic voting system, criticized by the opposition as vulnerable to fraud.

Early voters in the capital faced a violent storm that appeared to have knocked out the power in two polling stations visited by Reuters. Another station was not able to open on time due to a lack of electoral witnesses.

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 the vote will be tarnished by fraud, and that Kabila could continue to rule from the sidelines. He has not ruled out running again for president in 2023.

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Violent protests erupted this week after authorities announced that three opposition strongholds, accounting for more than 1.2 million out of 40 million voters nationwide, would not be able to vote due to health risks from an ongoing Ebola outbreak and ethnic violence.

At one polling station in the Ebola-hit city of Beni, dozens of voters nevertheless lined up to write their choices on sheets of paper, even though the vote had been canceled, said Teddy Kataliko, a local civil society leader.

Foreign diplomats told Reuters on Friday that only about 60 percent 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 favor of his preferred successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, whom opinion polls show trailing two opposition candidates.

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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.

Another opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, trailed with 24 percent, while Shadary got 19 percent.

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.

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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.

Congopresidential voteVotersJoseph Kabila