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Congo Presidential Vote Extended Amid Delays, Smudged Ballots


A voter prepares to cast her ballot in a polling station during the presidential elections in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 20, 2023.
A voter prepares to cast her ballot in a polling station during the presidential elections in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 20, 2023.

Lengthy delays at the polls forced officials on Wednesday to extend voting in Congo's presidential election as many residents in the mineral-rich West African nation struggled to cast ballots because of steep logistical and security challenges, raising concerns about the integrity of the process.

Polling stations that never opened on Wednesday will conduct voting on Thursday, Denis Kadima, chair of the electoral commission, said on local radio.

About 44 million people — almost half of the population — were expected to vote, but many, including several million displaced by conflict in the vast country's east, found it difficult to do so. The fighting prevented 1.5 million people from registering to vote.

At stake is the future of one of Africa's largest nations and one whose mineral resources are increasingly crucial to the global economy. Congo has a history of disputed elections that can turn violent, and there's little confidence among many Congolese in the country's institutions.

President Felix Tshisekedi is seeking his second and final five-year term, running against 26 others on the ballot. His main rival appeared to be Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga province and a millionaire businessperson.

The extension came after the national election commission spent more than $1 billion in recent years to make the process more credible. Opposition candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege criticized the extension, saying "the results of such a chaotic vote will not reflect the will of the people."

Three hours after voting officially began, more than 31% of polling stations in Congo's main cities and towns had yet to open, and voting machines were faulty in 45% of polling stations, according to Bishop Donatien Nshole, spokesman of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo and the Church of Christ in Congo observer mission, basing the figures on reports from around a fifth of its large network.

"When you wake up in the morning you're hoping for good things, good work, and I want security," voter Raymond Yuma said as he and three others waited for a polling station to open in the capital, Kinshasa.

None of their voting cards was legible. A major concern is that ink on the cards has smudged. That means voters could be turned away. In addition, the voter registration list hadn't been properly audited.

Another polling station in Kinshasa received its voting devices less than two hours before polls were meant to close, while thousands of stations, particularly in remote areas, may not have received the needed materials. Problems included faulty machines and some election officials not knowing how to use them, the commission said.

Allegations of voter fraud emerged in parts of the northern province of Équateur. More than 7,000 ballots reportedly were illegally marked before voting, according to Nshole.

In eastern Congo, people said they weren't finding their names on voting lists.

"The voters displayed on lists at the polling station are fewer than those who are lining up," voter Jules Kambale said at a polling station in Goma.

Some displaced people said they were prevented from voting because they were unable to get new voter cards.

At one station, an angry crowd tried to push past police officers in riot gear. And in the city of Bunia, a voting center was vandalized in a dispute between the electoral commission and voters, said Jean-Marcus Loika, a local journalist. Gunshots in the area prevented people from voting, he said.

While voting in Lubumbashi, opposition candidate Katumbi asked the population to stay at polling stations and monitor results until the end. "The only result that we will accept will be the one displayed on each polling station," he said.

A fractured opposition makes Tshisekedi the likely favorite to win. There is no runoff vote.

The son of a late, popular opposition figure, he has spent much of his presidency trying to consolidate power over state institutions and working to overcome a crisis of legitimacy after a contested election five years ago. Tshisekedi voted at a Kinshasa school and waved to a crowd of screaming supporters.

In the east, more than 120 armed groups are fighting for power and resources or to protect their communities. Tshisekedi had promised to curb the violence, but an East African force is pulling out, along with a U.N. peacekeeping mission. A cease-fire brokered by the United States in the region was extended from 72 hours to two weeks, the White House said. Residents said it appeared to be holding.