The Democratic Republic of Congo’s [DRC] election authorities have said that voting would continue the following day in areas where voters could not cast ballots, after a general election marked by severe logistical problems and delays.
There had long been fears that the four concurrent polls on Wednesday — to elect a president, national and regional lawmakers, as well as local councillors — would turn chaotic in the impoverished but mineral-rich central African nation.
Hours after voting was meant to have started, election officials were still transporting voting materials to polling stations. Some polling stations remained closed all day.
“The bureaus that did not open at all will do so on Thursday,” the electoral commission’s head, Denis Kadima, declared on state television channel in the evening.
He did not say how many polling booths had been affected.
President Felix Tshisekedi, 60, is running for a second term in office, against a backdrop of years of economic growth but soaring inflation and conflict in eastern DRC where some 120 rebels groups including powerful M23 hold sway.
DRC’s opposition candidates
AFP reporters saw a wide range of situations at voting stations by Wednesday evening.
In the eastern city of Goma, one polling station had shut. In the southeastern city of Lubumbashi, a vote count was underway under the light of mobile phones. And in the cities of Bukavu and Tshikapa, ballots were still being cast after nightfalll.
Some would-be voters in the capital Kinshasa were preparing to give up.
“I can’t anymore,” said Mama Maguy, at 7 pm local time [1800 GMT], sitting on the floor in a polling station. “I don’t have the strength to get pushed around in the waiting line.”
Staging elections in the DRC, which is roughly the size of western Europe and has very few roads, poses a daunting logistical challenge.
But there was little sympathy from leading opposition politicians.
“It’s total chaos,” said presidential candidate and former oil executive Martin Fayulu, 67. “There’s no organisation.”
Two other leading opposition candidates — gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, 68, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and 58-year-old business magnate and ex-provincial governor Moise Katumbi — also complained of irregularities.
In the afternoon, an influential election observer mission by a union of Congolese Catholic and Protestant churches indicated the scale of the problems.
Nearly a third of polling booths in the country had not opened, the observers said, and about 45 percent of voting machines suffered technical problems.
The government declared a bank holiday for Wednesday, and as in previous elections, has closed the borders and suspended domestic flights.
Around 44 million Congolese — in a nation of 100 million — are registered to choose their president as well as lawmakers in national and provincial assemblies, and local councillors.
More than 100,000 candidates are running for various positions.
Results are not expected for several days.
Tshisekedi targets ‘foreign candidates’
Tshisekedi, who took office in 2019 and faces 18 challengers, says he wants a second term to “consolidate his gains”.
He is considered the front-runner in the single-round presidential vote, although his record, as he himself has acknowledged, is mixed.
Opposition politicians have blamed him for the depreciation of the Congolese franc, which has driven up consumer costs.
The government has blamed global inflation linked to the Ukraine conflict.
The president has promised to tackle the issue and create millions of new jobs in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 20 years old.
Throughout the campaign, Tshisekedi also poured scorn on what he termed “foreign candidates” — suggesting that his opponents had dual loyalties and lacked the will to stand up to Rwanda, which the DRC accuses of funding rebel groups on its soil.
Katumbi, a former governor of mineral-rich Katanga province and chairman of the country’s leading football club, Tout Puissant Mazembe, is the main target of such attacks.
Armed conflict in eastern DRC overshadowed much of the electoral campaign.
Militias have plagued the troubled region for decades, a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and 2000s.
Tensions have resumed since the M23 group, which is allegedly backed by Rwanda, began capturing swathes of territory in late 2021.
Clashes with M23 fighters have subsided in recent weeks but the rebels continue to hold sway over large parts of North Kivu province, where voting was impossible.
But in the eastern city of Goma, Desire Abedi Mubwana, 28, said: “There’s the war, there’s a lack of jobs, young people are really being neglected, forgotten.
“But we’re here to vote in the right leaders who will still think about young people and who will also think about the security of our region.”