After More Than Two Years of Delays, Voters in Congo Face Irregularities, Flooding, and Suppression in Historic Election

Protesters argued with a police officer as they waited to cast their ballots in Kinshasa Sunday.

After more than two years of delays, Congo went to the polls Sunday in an election that holds both the promise of a democratic transition and the potential for large-scale violence should the results be seen as unfair. But by the time most polls closed, alarming irregularities were reported from across the country.

Millions of voters were met with nonexistent voter rolls and hundreds of malfunctioning or missing voting machines, and hundreds of cases of election observers saying they were barred from polling stations.

Vote counting began late Sunday night. The election commission says provisional results will be announced within a week and definitive ones by Jan. 15.

The election presents this enormous country with its first chance at a peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from Belgium in 1960. But for some voters in the Limete neighborhood, an opposition stronghold, many polling stations hadn’t received voters rolls six hours after polls opened, and a few didn’t have them by 5 p.m., their scheduled closing time.

“It’s a comedy,” said Kisoka Kimbenze, 52, around midday, after giving up and beginning to walk home. “But it is also a tragedy. The government has had years to organize this election, so of course the lack of voter rolls is intentional.”

The election was initially scheduled for 2016 but was postponed multiple times by President Joseph Kabila due to unrest around the country and the logistical challenges of delivering voting materials when much of Congo lacks even the most basic transport infrastructure. The delays allowed Kabila to stay in office far past his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.

Congo’s election commissioner, Corneille Nangaa, said long delays had affected polling stations serving approximately 35,000 voters in Kinshasa but did not offer an explanation for the mishap. As night fell, voters remained in line by the thousands, searching for their names on the rolls by flashlight.

Developments in the lead-up to the vote also contributed to a lack of public trust in its integrity. Just four days ago, voting was postponed until March in three cities due to ethnic unrest and an Ebola outbreak that has already been spreading for four months. Because the presidential election will be decided in January, the move disenfranchises more than 1.2 million voters.

Outside Kinshasa, reports flowed in Sunday of polling stations that lacked various materials, from the voting machines that are in use for the first time to ballots and voter rolls. Congo’s election commission has not responded publicly about the absence of material.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Max Bearak

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