GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — After a violent weekend and calls to cancel the ballot, Congolese authorities began tallying the votes Tuesday for their second multi-party elections in more than four decades.
At least nine people were killed in the days running up to Monday’s vote, including five who died Monday morning after armed men attacked polling stations and trucks carrying ballots, according to the Associated Press.
Opposition leader Vital Kamerhe has called for an annulment of the elections, saying they were marred by violence and fraud “deliberately planned” by the ruling party, according to Reuters. Kamerhe accused President Joseph Kabila's government of issuing pre-marked ballots and voter intimidation.
"Police chased witnesses from polling stations before counting could start," he said, according to Reuters.
The election was scheduled to end early Monday evening, but 24 hours later, some voting centers had yet to receive ballots.
While violence and disorganization delayed the vote across Congo, some observers in the east — where Kamerhe enjoys his strongest support — said they witnessed an imperfect, but potentially credible and fair election.
“Everyone seems to be telling us that they will accept the outcome — accept what this democratic process is going to bring them,” said Cindy McCain, the wife of US Sen. John McCain, on a mission to Congo with aid group Eastern Congo Initiative. “And that gives me great hope.”
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At the polls in the eastern regional capital Goma, voters waited for hours — some arriving before 6 a.m., the time the election was expected to begin. After opening an hour late, many polling places had voter rolls without people who had registered at the location.
Twenty-two-year-old unemployed college graduate Evelyn Nimwezi said she went to two other polling stations before returning to the high school where she originally registered to vote. But after 10 hours of efforts, she was still no closer to the ballot box.
“I was so tired I went home to take a nap,” she said outside the polling station. “But as soon as I went to bed I realized I could miss my chance to vote.”
This vote, the second since Kabila took power after the assassination of his father in 2001, pit the leader against 10 other presidential contenders. Nearly 20,000 men and women are competing for 500 parliamentary seats.
Ruling party supporters credit Kabila with ending — or at least cooling — the conflict that has decimated Congo over the past decades.
In 2003, Congo signed a peace treaty that officially ended the war, followed by a power-sharing agreement five years later intended to incorporate many armed militias into the regular army.
In Kabila’s local headquarters in Goma, regional campaign secretary Cyrille Muhongya said although the president is favored to win, he is prepared to accept any results.
“The president organized these elections so Congolese politicians could rise up,” he said. “Our party is prepared to accept the verdict.”
Opposition supporters in Goma say Kabila has not lived up to the promises of economic development, peace and security that he made in 2005, and political change is the only way to heal the region.
Frank Belunza, an election observer for the party of Kamerhe, one of the three top contenders for the presidential seat, said he believes there were an adequate number of observers at the elections, and that they were therefore a fair contest.
Like many Kamerhe supporters in Goma, he says the credibility of the election will be tested by the outcome.
“We have won,” he said outside a polling station, hours before the last ballot was cast. “Our candidate promised.”
Other supporters in Goma have repeatedly said they will reject any results that do not include a Kamerhe win.
Etienne Tshisekedi, the country’s strongest opposition candidate is a former presidential ally and sharp critic of the current government.
Although he drew tens of thousands of supporters to greet him in the Congolese capital last weekend, the fact that he must share the opposition vote with nine other candidates gives Kabila an added edge.
Tshisekedi’s arrival at the Kinshasa airport last weekend also ignited violence that threatens to consume this country if the elections are not deemed credible by the population.
Officials say votes will be tallied before the president’s constitutional mandate expires on Dec. 6. And while international organizations had urged Congo to delay the vote to prevent violence and give authorities time to prepare the ballot, candidates of several parties in Congo supported the on-time vote.
The polls were relatively peacefully in eastern Congo, but by the end of the day voters were frustrated — and often angry by the lack of organization. Police and election workers pleaded for calm, and people remained in lines hours after the election was supposed to end. They were promised that they could vote, no matter how long it took.
Rumors of individuals stuffing ballot boxes circulated, and police fired shots into the air after a fight broke out over an alleged incident of voter fraud.
Despite the violence in the capital and frustration in the provinces, voters said this election could be a pivotal moment in Congolese history. Jean-Claude Shuma said the Congolese people can no longer bear the abject poverty that comes with living in a virtual war zone.
“We are here to vote because we need a president who can lead this country,” he said. “Our president is not doing it.”