Millions of voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo will cast their ballots on Sunday in an election that will mark the first democratic transition of power in the vast central African country’s troubled history.
Optimists hope the DRC’s third presidential poll since the 2002 end of a civil war that killed around 5 million people will mark a turning point.
Pessimists fear it will lead to a cycle of protests and repression that could lead to further chaos and renewed anarchy.
Early signs are not good, with leading opposition candidates complaining of systematic harassment, observers predicting up to 40% of polling stations will not be able to open and fears that new voting machines could allow fraud.
The election, already delayed by two years, was postponed from last Sunday to allow further time to overcome logistic challenges in a country of 80 million inhabitants spread over an area the size of western Europe with almost no metalled roads.
The postponement of voting in some eastern regions, which were hit by an outbreak of Ebola, until after official results are released has provoked violent protests.
Many analysts predict widespread protest by opposition supporters who will feel cheated if Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the hardline interior minister and the government candidate, wins.
The DRC’s fragmented opposition has been unable to field one unified candidate, effectively splitting the vote of those who want to see significant change in the DRC.
However, a survey released on Friday by specialists at New York University put Shadary on just 19%, trailing frontrunner Martin Fayulu, a former business executive turned opposition candidate who was little known before the campaign, by 28 points. Félix Tshisekedi, a second opposition candidate, is on 24%.
“If elections are free and fair, an opposition candidate would be almost certain to win the presidency … The potential for violence is extremely high,” the report’s author wrote.
Almost half of respondents to the survey said they would “most certainly and/or probably” protest against rigged elections”.
The archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo, held a mass in the capital attended by Fayulu and a representative of Shadary. They and the sole female candidate, Marie-Josee Ifoku, held hands during prayer in a spirit of reconciliation.
“Unfortunately, some of our compatriots give the impression they want to hold the country hostage to violence,” the archbishop told the congregation.
“In no case will we permit these elections to become another opportunity to destroy Congo and shed the blood of Congolese who have bled too much for decades already.”
One certainty is that the rule of Joseph Kabila, president since 2001, will end. Kabila’s second electoral mandate ended in 2016 and the 47-year-old only reluctantly called new elections under pressure from regional power. He was barred from standing again himself by the constitution.
Two other major figures are absent from the ballot sheet: Jean-Pierre Bemba, a 56-year-old warlord and politician recently acquitted of war crimes by the international criminal court, and Moïse Katumbi, 53, a businessman with a big following in the south-west. Both have been barred for legal reasons.
Israel Mutala, a Kinshasa-based political analyst, said voters were likely to be disappointed whatever the result.
“People want to start again with new hope. They have this illusion that they can change something … but it’s an illusion. The problems are structural. An election can open the way to change but can’t go much further than that,” Mutala said.
The DRC has refused international offers of help to conduct the elections, stating that this would “compromise its sovereignty”.
A limited number of observers will be present, including some from the Southern African Development Community, a regional grouping that has endorsed a number of flawed elections in recent years.
Relations with many overseas powers are tense. After the EU prolonged sanctions on Shadary for his role in brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrators two years ago, Congo’s government on Thursday evening ordered the bloc’s ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours.
Officials say that “definitive” presidential election results will be announced on 15 January, with the inauguration three days later.
The election in and around Beni and Butembo in North Kivu province, and Yumbi in Mai-Ndombe province, will be in March instead.