Kinshasa, DR Congo: Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo are heading to the polls to elect a new president in what is hoped to be the country’s first democratic change of power in roughly 50 years.
A total of 21 candidates are vying for the mineral rich but poverty-stricken nation’s highest office on Sunday.
But only three of them are expected to have a chance of winning: Ruling party candidate and protege of outgoing President Joseph Kabila, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, and opposition candidates Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu.
The Central African nation will also elect a national assembly.
Initially set for December 23, the polls were postponed by a week after a fire – believed to have been set deliberately – destroyed 8000 voting machines in a warehouse in the capital Kinshasa.
In addition, the electoral commission earlier this week delayed elections in three towns until March 2019 due to an ongoing Ebola epidemic and violence.The presidential election has already been delayed for two years by Mr Kabila, who has been in power for 17 years.
The decision comes despite the fact the new president is due to be sworn in on January 18, essentially meaning that votes cast in these areas – two of which are opposition-inclined – will essentially be null and void.
The atmosphere in Congo has been heating up ahead of the vote, with at least 10 people killed in clashes with security forces and ruling party supporters at political rallies across the country.
About 39 million eligible voters are able to cast their votes at roughly 60,000 polling stations across the country.
Results are expected within a week after the polls.
The current president took over from his assassinated father Laurent in 2001, but he is barred from running for another term under the constitution.
He was supposed to step down two years ago, but the election was postponed after the electoral commission said it needed more time to register voters.
The decision triggered violent clashes, as the opposition accused Mr Kabila of trying to cling on to power.
Then last week, the election was delayed again, for seven days, because of problems deploying voting materials to polling sites.
This all came after thousands of electronic voting machines – being used for the first time – were destroyed in a fire in Kinshasa.
There are 21 candidates, but three frontrunners:
- Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister and Kabila loyalist, who was hit by European Union sanctions for his role in the violent suppression of opposition protests in 2017
- Martin Fayulu, a former oil executive who has promised “a dignified and prosperous Congo”, but who poor Congolese feel may not advance their cause
- Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, the son of a late veteran opposition leader who has promised to make the fight against poverty his priority
The three leading candidates and electoral officials met in a Kinshasa hotel on Saturday to, as Mr Fayulu said, “sign an agreement which ensures we will all behave correctly during and after the electoral process”.
But in the end, he and Mr Tshisekedi wanted amendments and refused to sign the text.
Image caption People have been queuing to vote in the capital, Kinshasa
This week, voting in three districts was postponed until March, with the electoral commission blaming insecurity and an Ebola virus outbreak.
About 1.26 million people will not be able to vote on Sunday as a result.
The decision in effect cancelled their votes, as the new president is due to be sworn in by mid-January regardless.
A crowd attacked an Ebola clinic in the east of the country after the announcement.
Regional observers will be keeping a close eye on voting, but European and US observers, who had concluded previous elections in the country had lacked credibility, have not been invited.
The vast central African state is rich in mineral resources and is the world’s leading producer of cobalt, used to power mobile phones and electric cars.
However, it has high levels of poverty, bad infrastructure, and a political and business elite accused of enriching itself at the expense of the poor.
It has also been at the centre of what some observers call “Africa’s world war”, between 1997 and 2003.
The conflict claimed up to six million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition.