- - Thursday, December 20, 2018

KINSHASA, Congo — A last-minute decision Thursday to delay the vote by a week has done little to ease concerns about Congo’s presidential election, which is overshadowed by fears of violence and questions over whether one of Africa’s most troubled countries can pull off a peaceful transition of power.

Already more than two years late, the election set for Sunday will now be held Dec. 30, said election officials, citing a recent fire that destroyed 80 percent of the voting machines in the capital. The delay was immediately condemned by opponents of long-serving President Joseph Kabila.

Political analysts said the extra seven days are only going to ratchet up tensions stoked by a recent attack on an opposition leader that left three people dead.

“They didn’t organize the election in seven years, and they want us to believe they will be ready in seven days? Kabila is sabotaging the election. Kabila must go,” Fiston Adumba, a 32-year-old resident of the capital, told The Associated Press.

Even before the latest glitch, pervasive fear and uncertainty loomed over the logistics of the vote, posing a major threat to what many hoped would be a watershed moment: a peaceful, if overdue, transfer of civilian political power in a vast, unstable country, but one that has the potential, population and natural resources to be one of the continent’s economic powerhouses.

“We are afraid. Police are everywhere,” said Martin Ngoyi, a taxi driver. “They are arresting and shooting anyone that opposes the government’s candidate. We can’t vote in such an environment. We need help.”

Three people were killed and hundreds of others were seriously injured during a campaign rally last week in Lubumbashi, in the country’s southeast, when security forces sprayed tear gas and live ammunition onto the convoy of leading opposition presidential candidate Martin Fayulu.

“The government doesn’t want any opposition leader to campaign,” said Mr. Fayulu. “They shot at us and my convoy. We cannot campaign. Why is the government afraid?”

Fears of violence have only increased. The governor of the district that includes Kinshasa announced Wednesday a ban on all public election events — just before Mr. Fayulu’s supporters were planning a major rally.

Credibility and intentions

The violence and delays have raised new questions about the credibility of the vote and Mr. Kabila’s intentions. The president’s term technically ended in December 2016, but he remained in power, citing the country’s instability and what the government said was the difficulty of organizing and financing a fair, nationwide vote. He has since tapped former Interior Minister Emmanuel Shadary as his preferred successor, and officials in his government have taken steps to prevent rivals from emerging.

In August, election officials barred Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president, and Moise Katumbi, a businessman and former governor of the Katanga region, from running. Mr. Bemba faces war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. Mr. Katumbi was blocked from entering the country to register as a candidate. Both now support Mr. Fayulu.

According to a recent poll, 36 percent of voters support opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a veteran opposition leader. Vital Kamerhe, a former president of the National Assembly, came in second with 17 percent. Mr. Shadary garnered 16 percent, and Mr. Fayulu had 8 percent.

In an unusual twist, the country’s constitution states that whoever gets the highest number of votes wins, raising the odds that a badly divided opposition will allow Mr. Kabila’s favorite to slip through well short of a majority.

Mr. Shadary insists that he is the front-runner.

“I know I’m winning. Ask me by what margin,” he said. “When you look around, you can see by yourself that we have massive support across the country. We are campaigning, and we’ll continue.”

A total of 20 opposition candidates are still on the ballot, but the bigger question for voters is whether Mr. Kabila is willing to cede power if his candidate does not win.

In a country dealing with insurgent violence and a deadly outbreak of Ebola, there are signs of mounting worry about the vote. The U.S. Embassy on Sunday issued a security alert strongly urging U.S. citizens “to depart the country and take advantage of departing commercial flights.”

“Many cities throughout the country experience demonstrations, some of which have been violent,” said the alert, adding that U.S. officials will have difficulty aiding Americans beyond the capital if violence erupts. “The government has responded with heavy-handed tactics that have resulted in civilian casualties and arrests.”

Mr. Kabila, 47, took control of the country in 2001 just 10 days after the assassination of his father, President Laurent-Desire Kabila, who had overthrown dictator Mobutu Sese Seko four years earlier. Voters elected the younger Mr. Kabila as president in 2006. In 2011, he was re-elected to a second term and promised that would be his final term in office.

Power dynamics

Peter Wafula Wekesa, a political scientist at Kenyatta University in Kenya, said the outgoing president would do everything in his power to support Mr. Shadary in order to retain his grip on government.

“I think Kabila’s decision to step aside won’t change anything in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s power dynamics,” he said. “Kabila is going to continue ruling his country but behind the scenes. They are very close with Shadary, and nothing is going to change.”

Opposition candidates have especially questioned the credibility of electronic voting machines, which are being used for the first time in the country. The South Korean-made technology features a touch screen where voters choose their preferred candidate.

The government has strongly defended the integrity of the machines.

“The system is perfect, and it will prevent fraud and also provide a faster tally of votes across various parts of the country,” said Jean-Pierre Kalamba, who oversees the Independent National Electoral Commission. “There’s nothing to worry about. The system has also cut costs, and it’s effective.”

But opposition leaders are wary.

Kabila and his government want to manipulate the machine and fix the vote in favor of their preferred candidate,” said Mr. Fayulu. “We are not going to allow this to happen. I know I’m headed for victory because I have people’s support.”

Mr. Wekesa cast doubt on Mr. Shadary’s claim to broad popular support but said the candidate may be counting on Mr. Kabila’s help behind the scenes on Election Day.

“Shadary is not well known around the country and elsewhere,” the analyst said. “He has no support, and he lacks finances to campaign. But the government is going to step in with all its mechanisms to ensure he wins the elections. There is no way any other candidate can win this election with the African style of politics.”

Mr. Tshisekedi is the candidate to beat if the contest is free and fair, said Mr. Wekesa. His father ran against Mr. Kabila in 2011 and then challenged the election results in court. The appeal was unsuccessful but boosted his image as someone who will take on Mr. Kabila. The elder Mr. Tshisekedi died last year.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council urged all parties to engage peacefully and constructively in the process to ensure peaceful, credible elections.

“While welcoming the progress in the technical preparation of the polls, the members of the Security Council are worried” about violence marring the final days of the electoral campaign, a U.N. statement said.

The Security Council asked all sides “to continue to reject violence of any kind, exercise maximum restraint in their actions and … refrain from provocations such as violence and violent speeches and to address their differences peacefully,” the statement added.

Mr. Ngoyi, the taxi driver, agreed.

“We want a conducive environment before the vote takes place,” he said. “We also want police to restrain from intimidating supporters of opposition candidates. We want a free and fair poll.”

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