Politics

Congo opens polls for long-delayed presidential election

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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Scores of polling centers had not yet opened in the capital, hours after Congo’s presidential election began, the electoral commission chief confirmed Sunday, as he faced shouts of “We wanted to vote!” and frustrated people walked away.

The election is Congo’s first chance to have a peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960 as longtime President Joseph Kabila steps aside.

The chief of Congo’s electoral commission told The Associated Press that 49 voting centers in Kinshasa were still waiting for voters lists. “We have printed lists for 29 of them and the rest are being printed right now,” Corneille Nangaa said while hurrying from center to center, at times handing out the lists himself.

Hundreds of people waited at the Saint Raphael center in Kinshasa’s Limete neighborhood. “We are waiting to know who is supposed to vote where,” polling official Christian Mwangalay said. At least 6,000 people were expected to vote there. Dozens of young men decided to practice voting, piling ballots in a basket.

At stake in the election is a country rich in minerals including those crucial to the world’s smartphones and electric cars, and yet Congo remains desperately underdeveloped with widespread corruption and insecurity.

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Unrest had been feared after a last-minute decision to bar an estimated 1 million people from voting because of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the east. The decision has been widely criticized as threatening the credibility of the election.

In Beni, where voting was postponed until March, long after Congo’s new leader will be inaugurated in January, a few hundred protesters staged mock elections. People cast paper ballots and many sang in Swahili, “Voting is our right and nobody can stop us.”

Beni residents said they and others barred in Butembo city should have the right to have their votes counted.

Jacob Salamu, 24, and others washed their hands before voting as a protection against Ebola, which is spread via infected bodily fluids. “We do not have Ebola. Kabila is worse than Ebola,” Salamu said. They will send their voting results to the electoral commission, he said.

The delay has been widely criticized as undermining the credibility of the election, while some health workers have said it politicizes the outbreak and puts them in danger. Some protesters in Beni have attacked Ebola facilities.

Two main opposition candidates, Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi, are challenging Kabila’s preferred successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under sanctions from the European Union.

A rainstorm began voting day in the capital, flooding some streets. Kabila and Shadary voted together at the central Gombe Institute polling station.

“My message today to my compatriots is to come and vote for their candidates and brave the rain,” Kabila said. Shadary called for “peace and calm,” adding “I am very confident in victory.”

Leading opposition candidate Fayulu voted at the same polling station.

“Today, we are writing the end of Kabila, the end of misery for Congolese people,” he said as he cast his ballot. “Congo will stop being the laughingstock of the world.”

Although electoral officials have estimated that people could vote in one minute, the process was taking several minutes per person, causing concern.

Congo’s 40 million registered voters are using electronic voting machines with touch screens for the first time amid opposition concerns that the results could be manipulated. Some Congolese observers have said voting materials didn’t reach some polling stations in time.

One polling official in Kinshasa worried that the voting machines will run out of battery power.

Frustration grew. “We came to vote and there is nothing. May (President Joseph) Kabila go to hell,” said voter Elvis Bolungu at the Limete polling station. Others just walked away.

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Associated Press writer Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro contributed from Beni.

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Follow Africa news at https://twitter.com/AP_Africa

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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