On Monday, November 28th, millions of Congolese turned out to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections, only the third such election in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history. Violence at polling stations, missing ballots, and long lines caused voting to be extended to a second day, and then a third. Accusations of fraud and reportedly close poll numbers between incumbent President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi have set the trigger for possible violence when the election results are announced tonight at midnight.
Even before the election, international observers and human rights groups were concerned that citizens’ confidence in the results would be marred by poor preparation, organization, and allegations of corruption. Just one week before the election, experts feared it would not start on time, as ballots and ballot boxes had still not arrived in the country. Added to these concerns, was the sheer complexity of an election where more than 19,000 candidates were running for Parliament in a country inflicted with high illiteracy rates. The parliamentary ballots were the size of newspapers and consisted of nearly 15 pages of names and thumbnail pictures of candidates.
More worryingly, two people were killed in violent clashes in the capital city of Kinshasa the Saturday before the election. Other reports surfaced of government security forces harassing opposition activists, and political rallies were banned the day before the election for security reasons. A rally in support of opposition candidate Étienne Tshisekedi was launched in spite of the ban and was violently suppressed by security forces wielding batons and firing tear gas cannons.
On Election Day, millions waited in long lines to vote for presidential and parliamentary candidates. Thousands of voters reported that they were unable to find their names on the voting lists and were turned away. Some were able to vote only by checking several polling stations to find their names. Congolese citizens in some rural districts waited hours, and in some cases days to vote. In some polling stations loose ballots were lying out, bags of ballots sat in the rain, and tally sheets were left blowing in the wind.
Violent clashes in polling stations and in the streets were also reported. At least 15 polling stations were reportedly lit on fire by voters angry at the long waits and absence of ballots. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 18 people were killed and 100 wounded during the election, with the majority killed by security forces loyal to President Kabila.
Congolese and international observers are worried that these incidents are only a precursor to the violence that may erupt when the Independent National Election Commission releases its results tonight. In the last election in 2006, street violence broke out after the opposition candidate, Jean Pierre Bemba, lost to President Kabila. In this election, President Kabila is running against ten other presidential candidates, including Étienne Tshisekedi, who has gained support from citizens tired of ten years of Kabila’s increasingly oppressive rule. Tshisekedi has already implied that he will not accept the results of the elections if he suspects they are fraudulent. His supporters have indicated that they will riot if he loses the race to President Kabila. Three other opposition candidates have already rejected the results of the elections, citing what they say is widespread voter fraud intended to keep Kabila in power.
International experts on the Congo say that the situation is ripe for violence. In the words of one expert, “There are certainly people in the ruling party…who would resort to extralegal means to prevent Tshisekedi from being president”. International elections observers are expressing worry that violence is imminent and are begging candidates to accept the results of the election. Meanwhile in the capital of Kinshasa, civilians are fleeing across the river to safety in the neighboring Congo Republic as trucks full of armed soldiers loyal to President Kabila circle the streets waiting for midnight.
UPDATE: Owing to an inability to count all votes by the midnight deadline, the Independent National Election Commission has said that it will not be able to release the results of the election until Thursday. Preliminary results seem to suggest President Kabbila will be re-elected.