By Djaffar Al Katanty, Sonia Rolley and Ange Kasongo
GOMA/KINSHASA (Reuters) – As Democratic Republic of Congo gears up for elections next week, the opposition and independent observers warn that issues including illegible voter cards, blocked campaign planes, and electoral list delays threaten the legitimacy of the results.
For months, the CENI election commission has rejected criticism it is failing to deliver a free and fair vote as promised, even as it flags logistical setbacks organising the presidential and legislative ballot across Africa’s second-largest country.
Tensions have escalated in the final weeks of campaigning before the Dec. 20 vote. Challengers to President Felix Tshisekedi have cried foul over what they call an uneven playing field and ratcheted up accusations the authorities plan to tip the election in their favour including through voter roll chicanery. The CENI and presidency deny this.
At stake is not just the legitimacy of the next administration, but also wider stability, as disputes over perceived electoral malpractice often spark violent unrest in Congo. Unrest also has potential global implications as the country of 95 million people is the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, a key component in batteries for electric cars and mobile phones.
“There is no longer democracy in this country,” said presidential hopeful Moise Katumbi, a mining magnate who is seen as a frontrunner in the crowded opposition field of over two dozen candidates.
Katumbi told Reuters he had planned to use nine planes to canvas support across the forested country that is nearly the size of France, but had not received authorisation from the civil aviation authority, hamstringing his campaign.
As seasonal rains make Congo’s largely unpaved road network impassable, other opposition contenders have alleged efforts to suppress campaigns and logistical hurdles to reaching voters, which they say contravene the electoral law requiring all candidates have an equal footing in the race.
Such issues are particularly fraught in Congo, which in 59 years of independence only saw its first handover of presidential power in 2019, albeit after a poll tarnished by allegations of fraud and unrest.
On Dec. 8, Tshisekedi challenger Denis Mukwege published a statement accusing authorities of trying to derail his campaign by tearing down his posters and requisitioning aviation fuel to curb opposition travel.
Government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya denied Mukwege’s allegations and the opposition’s broader claims of unfair treatment. “The opposition is trying to portray itself as the victim,” he said by phone. “We are not in the game of blocking others in order to succeed.”
LACK OF TRUST
Tshisekedi, 60, has pitched himself to the 44 million registered voters as the least disruptive choice for a country battling myriad eastern rebel groups and entrenched poverty.
His administration has vowed to support CENI efforts to deliver the election as promised, but long-running controversies over voter lists and ID cards have already thrown the credibility of the vote into doubt, say the opposition as well as independent religious and civil society observers.
The Carter Center, a U.S. election monitoring group, has said concerns about the quality and transparency of voter registration have contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust. It noted errors and delays publishing voter lists and issues with smudged and illegible voter cards.
“The conditions of confidence have not been met for a peaceful election and for the results not to be contested tomorrow,” said Tresor Kibangula, political analyst at the Ebuteli research institute. “Very few people believe the CENI,” he said.
Six candidates, including Tshisekedi’s main rivals, joined forces in October to demand a number of urgent measures to prevent potential fraud.
In late November, the CENI insisted all would be well after a senior member of the influential Congolese Catholic Church said the electoral process was off-track and questioned its transparency.
In the final days of campaigning, monitors again sounded the alarm about delays posting the final list of voters in each polling station.
“We fear there will be a mess on election day,” Luc Lutala, coordinator of the Symocel observer mission, said on Tuesday. “Voters who don’t know where to vote are voters stripped of the right to vote.”
In the capital Kinshasa, where the majority of billboards carry posters of a resolute-looking Tshisekedi, some voters are unsure if they will be able to take part.
Secondhand clothes-seller Nenette Bila, 47, said she had not been able to replace her smudged ID card at a local election centre. “I had to use an iron to get the writing on the voter card to appear, but it’s still unreadable and I’m furious,” she said at Huileries market.
(Additional reporting by Benoit Nyemba in Kinshasa, Crispin Kyala in Bukavu; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Bate Felix and Frances Kerry)