Congo opposition leader Fayulu takes clear lead for Sunday election

Martin Fayulu

KINSHASA (Reuters) – Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu is the clear favourite to win Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-delayed election on Sunday, a poll showed on Friday, though the outcome remains uncertain after voting was cancelled in several opposition strongholds.

Unrest hit the eastern city of Beni on Thursday after a decision to shelve voting there and in other cities was seen as a manoeuvre to suppress opposition support, rather than a precaution due to an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.

Sunday’s election is meant to bring about the first democratic transition of power in the vast, mineral-rich Central African country. But the opposition has repeatedly questioned whether its results will genuinely reflect voter sentiment because of widespread fears of ballot rigging.

The latest poll by a New York University-affiliated research group showed Fayulu leapfrogging from third place in October to the top spot with 44 percent support. He was ahead of the former frontrunner, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, on 23 percent, and the ruling party’s Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary on 18 percent.

“The polls reveal an electorate eager for change. A large majority supports the opposition,” Congo Research Group (CRG), which commissioned the polling on which the survey was based, said in a statement.

“Fayulu … is the clear favourite to win elections if they are free and fair,” the CRG said.

Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil manager, was little known when he was picked as the joint candidate of an opposition coalition in November, but extensive campaigning, including in Ebola-hit Beni, has since heightened his profile.

FRUSTRATION

His coalition objected this week to the electoral commission (CENI) decision to cancel the vote in Beni, Butembo and their surrounding areas as well as in the western city of Yumbi.

Local officials said the cities’ exclusion was intended to boost the chances of Shadary, a former interior minister whom President Joseph Kabila has nominated as his successor.

Frustration has mounted across the country after repeated delays scheduling an election in the wake of the expiration of Kabila’s mandate in late 2016. A last-minute decision to push back the vote by a week to Dec. 30 raised the stakes further.

“The potential for violence is extremely high,” the Congo Research Group said in its statement.

According to the poll, 48 percent of respondents said they would certainly or probably protest if the vote appeared to be rigged, while “an alarming percentage” said they would not accept the results if Shadary won, CRG said.

It cited a survey indicating that 63 percent would fall into that category, and another poll putting it at 43 percent.

The government has refused to accept election observers from the European Union and the U.S.-based Carter Center, which said Kabila’s re-election in 2011 was marred by widespread fraud.

Election postponements over the past two years in Congo, where governance and law enforcement are often weak, have triggered violent protests in which security forces killed dozens of people.