At least four people were killed in DR Congo’s South-Kivu province on Sunday, as voters cast their ballots in the country’s long-anticipated elections, already two years and a week behind schedule. But a series of delays have left many people frustrated.
“The electoral process has been extremely flawed,” says Jason Stearns, Director of the Congo Research Group in New York.
“We’ve been receiving an enormous number of reports of irregularities, from election observers not being able to enter polling stations, and many, many cases of people showing up and not finding their names, or showing up and voting machines just not working,” he told RFI.
Frustration with these irregularities led to riots in some parts of the country, with reports of people burning down polling stations and voting machines, or coming to blows with election officials.
Clashes broke out at a polling station in the Walungu area of South-Kivu province, after an electoral official was accused of trying to rig the vote in favour of presidential candidate Emmanuel Ramazini Shadary, according to the opposition.
“An agitated crowd started fighting with police. An officer was killed, which we deeply regret,” said Vital Kamerhe, a former president of the National Assembly who is from South-Kivu, and campaign director to opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi.
The mob “then attacked the electoral official who died. Two civilians were also killed,” he told AFP of the incident which South-Kivu authorities said was being investigated.
Earlier in the day, the Catholic Church which has the largest group of polling observers reported over 1,500 irregularities.
Watch here as RFI’s Rosie Collyer explains the importance of the Church’s role in the DRC elections.
RFI’s Sonia Rolley reporting on the elections also confirmed the irregularities.
There was frustration equally in Beni in eastern Congo, where the vote was postponed until next March, mostly in opposition strongholds, due to Ebola fears.
“I think people are frustrated, there’s no doubt about it,” comments Stearns.
Civilians nonetheless queued up for hours in a mock poll in Beni to contest their exclusion from the presidential election.
“There are 1.2 million people who have been excluded from the ballot out of 40 million people. It is small in terms of percentage but obviously every vote counts. And 1.2 million is a lot of people, so they’re very frustrated.”
These hitches, together with the two-year delay in organizing the polls have raised fears of unrest once the results are announced.
“Presidential candidate Emmanuel Shadary is so unpopular that if he wins, the country will face an enormous amount of contestation in weeks to come,” according to Stearns.
Congo’s 140 different armed groups present in just two of the country’s 26 provinces risk exploiting the burgeoning political crisis.
Why do these polls matter?
“They matter because this is what can be seen as the conclusion of the peace process to end conflict in the country,” says Stearns.
The election gives the DRC the chance for its first peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
For the average Congolese in the country, these elections go beyond history and represent a chance for real democracy.
“Every day they are confronted with corruption, insecurity, a dysfunctional state,” continues Stearns. “This affects peasants as much as it affects business people in the capital and the only way they can change that oppressive, dysfunctional, predatory state is through the ballot box.”
“This I think is why people want to take action, walk for hours, spend hours and hours waiting in line in order to vote,” he said.
The provisional results will be announced on January 6, final results a week later and the new president sworn in on January 18.