Voters head to the polls in Congo amid predictions of chaos
Congo’s long-delayed polls for president and the National Assembly are finally taking place on Sunday, but observers are predicting widespread confusion and unrest.
The sprawling, mineral-rich nation, which is two-thirds the size of western Europe but has very little infrastructure, has not had a peaceful transfer of power in its 60 years as an independent nation.
Early reports on Sunday said many polling stations didn’t open hours after voting was to begin.
Longtime Congo analyst Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies says she is less concerned about the result of the poll than about the dangerous environment that more than 40 million voters may face on Sunday.
“I think the really big concern that we have now is that there is really going to be widespread chaos on Sunday. We are getting reports about how poorly organized the CENI [electoral commission] is,” she told VOA.
“The voting material hasn’t been properly distributed; we’re hearing that potentially instead of counting ballots, the independent electoral commission will transmit the final results by internet. And we’re just very concerned about the technical legitimacy of this, about the potential for chaos, and the potential for violence.”
The run-up to the poll has been similarly chaotic. It was supposed to happen in 2016, but authorities delayed it repeatedly, citing a lack of preparation. That allowed longtime President Joseph Kabila to remain in office two years beyond the end of his term.
This year, the nation’s electoral commission declared that polls would happen by year-end. That, too, has been a bumpy ride.
The opposition cried foul over controversial Korean-made voting machines, which they described as “rigging machines” that would allow the ruling coalition to steal the vote.
Authorities maintained that the poll would happen on December 23 — until earlier in the month, when a warehouse full of electoral materials mysteriously burned to the ground in a heavily guarded part of the capital and officials delayed the poll by a week.
Then, last week, officials announced that they would also delay voting in three volatile areas — which also happen to be opposition hotspots, and have more than 1 million voters — because of concerns about violence and an ongoing Ebola outbreak.
And so, as the nation braces for this vote, some observers, like Claude Kabemba, the Johannesburg-based director of Southern Africa Resource Watch, say they are not optimistic.
Although the latest opinion survey has shown opposition candidate Martin Fayulu taking a commanding lead, Kabemba is betting that Kabila himself — not Kabila’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary — will ultimately win.
“We are heading toward President Joseph Kabila remaining in power because that is the strategy, that is the idea, that is the purpose of the entire maneuvering that has been done,” he said.
Kabemba said the confusion is for Kabila to “showcase to the world that, ‘We have been willing to go to elections, I’ve organized elections, the Congolese put money, put up an independent electoral commission — but this has happened, this has happened, this has happened. Because the Constitution says I have to stay in power until a new president is inaugurated, then, I stay in power.’ That is the strategy.”
Kabila has, in fact, told journalists in a series of recent interviews that he may choose to re-enter politics after this election. His opponents, including Fayulu, have accused him of sowing chaos and confusion.
Congo is funding this election, having refused international assistance. And on Thursday, the government announced it would expel the ambassador from the European Union, after the EU recently renewed sanctions against several Congolese officials — including Shadary.
VOA sought comment from the Congolese government on the expulsion and on the pre-election atmosphere, but the government’s top spokesman did not answer repeated calls.
Wolters says she expects Shadary to triumph, but has little faith in the electoral commission.
“I think we have many reasons to believe that the government is going to try and hijack this election and have its incumbent Ramazani Shadary win,” she said. “I have very few indications at this point that the government wants to hold a free and fair poll in a peaceful environment. So I think it is highly likely that we will see Joseph Kabila’s successor being declared as the winner.”