KINSHASA: Late voters check the voting list in a school in Kinshasa on December 30, 2018, during Democratic Republic of Congo’s general elections. – AFP

KINSHASA: The Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday began counting ballots from a presidential election marked by delays and fears of violence and vote-rigging, straining hopes for its first-ever peaceful transfer of power. Sunday’s elections went ahead after two years of delays and sporadic clashes in the unstable country, but the influential national conference of Catholic bishops declared the vote had been “relatively calm.”

Among reported incidents, some electoral observers were harassed and a clash took in the restive eastern province of South Kivu that left four people dead. The DRC has never had a peaceful transition of leader since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Worries of a new spiral into violence deepened after President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, refused to quit two years ago when his constitutionally-declared limit expired.

Tension and suspicion were further stoked by  repeated delays, a bloody crackdown on anti-Kabila protests and accusations that electronic voting machines would help to rig the result. But Kabila appeared on public television late Sunday to congratulate the Congolese for having voted “in peace and dignity”.

Provisional results are due to be announced on January 6, final results on January 15 and the new president sworn in on January 18. From Kinshasa to Goma, 2,000 kilometers further east, polling stations already put up first results on Monday morning. In Kisangani, the country’s third-largest city, observers hired by the political parties slept on the floor or on desks at a polling station to keep their eye on the vote count, an AFP reporter said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Catholic Church observers, who were present at 78 percent of polling stations, said some had been forced to leave the voting centers. “We had cases where our observers were molested and violated,” Luc Lutala told AFP yesterday morning. On Sunday evening, violence erupted at a polling station in the Walungu area of South Kivu province after an electoral official was accused of trying to rig the vote in favour of Kabila’s preferred successor, according to an opposition figure. The electoral official was killed along with a policeman and two civilians, said Vital Kamerhe, who has been campaigning for Felix Tshisekedi.

Victory claims

Kabila’s champion Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary declared Sunday to Actualite.cd news site: “I’ll be elected, I’ll be president.” Separately, Tshisekedi, one of his biggest rivals and the head of a veteran opposition party, UDPS, predicted: “Victory is ours.” However, the scant opinion polls that have been conducted in the diverse, sprawling country made Martin Fayulu — until recently a little-known legislator and former oil executive — the clear favourite.

He garnered around 44 percent of voting intentions, followed by Tshisekedi with 24 percent and Shadary with 18 percent, said Jason Stearns of the Congo Research Group, based at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. If the elections are “free and fair,” an opposition candidate will almost certainly win. However, “the potential for violence is extremely high,” he warned.  Roughly half of survey respondents said they would reject the result if Shadary — a hardline former interior minister who is facing EU sanctions for a crackdown on protesters — was declared winner.

Voting hitches

While turnout failed to reach 50 percent at some polling stations, many voters said they were exhilarated at taking part in the first elections after the nearly 18-year Kabila era. But there was also much evidence of organizational problems, including with the contested voting machines. The vote for a new president took place alongside legislative and municipal polls.

A country almost the size of continental western Europe which straddles central Africa, the DRC is rich in gold, uranium, copper, cobalt and other minerals. Little of that wealth trickles down to the poor. Poverty, corruption and government inertia are etched into the country’s history, along with a reputation for violence. In the last 22 years, it has twice been a battleground for wars drawing in armies from central and southern Africa. That legacy endures in eastern DRC, where militias control swathes of territory and battle over resources, wantonly killing civilians.

Insecurity and an ongoing Ebola epidemic in part of North Kivu province, and communal violence in Yumbi, in the southwest, prompted the authorities to postpone the elections there until March. Around 1.25 million people in a national electoral roll of around 40 million voters are affected. Despite this, elections in the rest of the country went ahead. – AFP