DRC presidential elections dogged by delays and blunders

Polls shelved in opposition strongholds, as government accused of suppressing votes

Polling stations in the Democratic Republic of Congo are ill-prepared for Sunday's presidential vote, diplomats and an observer mission said, as polling released on Friday showed opposition candidate Martin Fayulu favoured to win.

Frustration has mounted across the country after repeated election delays and blunders, as well as a decision this week to shelve voting in several opposition strongholds.

Protests flared for a second straight day in eastern cities in response to the decision to cancel voting in Beni and Butembo in the east and Yumbi in the west. Demonstrators see it as a manoeuvre by the government to suppress the vote, rather than a precaution due to an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.

In the eastern city of Goma, police fired teargas during a standoff with protesters, while demonstrators in Butembo barricaded the streets and set fires at crossroads, according to local police.

Activist group Lucha said police had arrested 18 of its members during the protest in Butembo. The police confirmed arrests but did not say how many.

Last week the vote was pushed back to December 30th due to a lack of ballot papers in the capital. At the time, the national electoral commission (CENI) said preparations would be complete by the new date.

But, two days ahead of the ballot, only about 60 per cent of election materials – including sheets to tabulate the vote – have been delivered to polling stations across the country, three foreign diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

Preferred candidate

Opposition leaders have accused authorities of trying to rig the vote in favour of outgoing president Joseph Kabila's preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, using electronic voting machines. The government denies that.

“If the results sheets don’t arrive on time then it means that the vote results will be transferred via the voting machine, and that is going to inflame suspicions of fraud,” said one of these diplomats, who has been in recent contact with CENI officials.

CENI spokespeople could not be immediately reached for comment, but have said that the announced results will be based on hand counts of print-outs from the machines – as the opposition has demanded.

The election is meant to bring about the first democratic transition of power in the vast central African country where regional wars around the turn of the century resulted in millions of deaths.

But a chaotic election day could spark fresh violence, as was the case after the 2006 and 2011 elections.

Election observers

Observers from the Catholic Church, African Union and Southern African Development will also be present for the vote, but the government has refused to accept election observers from the European Union and US-based Carter Center, which said Mr Kabila's re-election in 2011 was marred by widespread fraud.

Public support for Mr Kabila’s preferred successor, Mr Shadary, has remained flat in recent weeks even as the popularity of opposition candidate Martin Fayulu soared.

The latest poll by a New York University-affiliated Congo Research Group showed Mr Fayulu leapfrogging from third place in October to the top spot with 44 per cent support. He was ahead of the former frontrunner, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, on 23 per cent, and Mr Shadary on 18 per cent.

Mr Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil manager, was little known when he was picked as the joint candidate of an opposition coalition in November, but extensive campaigning, including in Ebola-hit Beni, has since heightened his profile. – Reuters