Delays, frustrations mark Congo’s presidential election

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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Lengthy delays were reported across Congo on Sunday, marring the presidential election the country hoped would be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960.

Election observers are reporting multiple voting problems around the vast Central African nation, which is choosing a successor to President Joseph Kabila, who is stepping down after 17 years in power. The election had been delayed since late 2016, prompting the opposition to charge that Kabila was trying to stay on past his mandate.

From a field of some 21 candidates, opposition leaders Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi are challenging Kabila’s preferred successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under European Union sanctions for a crackdown on people protesting the delays to the election.

Tshisikedi, after voting in the afternoon, said that some polling stations in Kinshasa had not even opened six hours after voting began. He accused Congo’s government of deliberately creating an election day mess to spark a court challenge that will allow Kabila to extend his time in power.

“I deplore all the disorder that we hear about,” said Tshisikedi, who said Kabila’s government is “responsible for this mess.”

Voters and observers have reported multiple problems in the election, notably with the voting machines that Congo is using for the first time. The opposition has warned that the machines could be used to manipulate the vote in favor of Kabila’s preferred successor.

The Catholic church’s election observer mission in Congo says it has received 544 reports of malfunctioning voting machines. The statement also reports 115 cases of election observers being kicked out of polling centers or not being allowed access. And it reports 44 cases of vote-buying or corruption.

Nearly 50 polling stations in the capital, Kinshasa, were idle for hours because lists of registered voters had not been delivered, electoral commission chief Corneille Nangaa told The Associated Press. The sprawling capital city is an opposition stronghold.

Nangaa brought some of the lists to polling stations himself, amid angry shouts of “We wanted to vote!” from people waiting in long lines. Others, discouraged, walked away. Dozens of young men decided to practice voting, piling ballots in a basket. Once lists were delivered, crowds rushed to vote.

Another observer group reported a multitude of problems the movement of polling stations to new locations at the last minute, said Luc Lutala, spokesman for the Symotel civic group, which deployed 19,000 observers.

“We knew there would be issues, but this is way beyond what we expected,” Lutala said.

At stake is a country rich in minerals including those crucial to the world’s smartphones and electric cars, and yet Congo remains desperately underdeveloped with widespread corruption and insecurity.

Election unrest had been feared after a last-minute decision to bar an estimated 1 million people from voting because of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the east. The decision has been widely criticized as threatening the credibility of the election and putting health workers in danger as people protest.

Voting in the Ebola-affected cities of Beni and Butembo was delayed until March, long after Congo’s new leader will be inaugurated in January.

On Sunday, well over 10,000 people lined up in Beni to stage their own election , vowing to deliver the results to the electoral commission. People cast paper ballots and many sang in Swahili, “Voting is our right and nobody can stop us.”

They washed their hands before voting as a protection against Ebola, which is spread via infected bodily fluids. “We do not have Ebola. Kabila is worse than Ebola,” said Jacob Salamu, 24, who said he was voting for the first time.

Election day in the capital began with a heavy rainstorm that flooded some streets. Kabila and Shadary voted together.

“My message today to my compatriots is to come and vote for their candidates and brave the rain,” Kabila said. Shadary called for “peace and calm,” adding that “I am very confident in victory.”

Fayulu, considered the leading candidate, later voted at the same polling station.

“Today we are writing the end of Kabila, the end of misery for Congolese people,” he said. “Congo will stop being the laughingstock of the world.”

Although electoral officials had estimated that people could vote in under a minute, the process was taking several minutes per person, causing concern.

Congo’s more than 40 million registered voters are using electronic voting machines with touch screens for the first time amid opposition concerns that the results could be manipulated.

In Kinshasa, one polling official worried that the machines would run out of battery power.

Amid the delays and confusion, frustration grew. “We came to vote and there is nothing. May Kabila go to hell,” said voter Elvis Bolungu.