Congo election violence kills five as voters go to the polls
REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Violent clashes broke out Monday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing at least five people, as voters turned out for chaotic presidential and parliamentary elections.
In southern Congo, gunmen attacked polling stations in the second-largest city, Lumbumbashi, in Katanga province. At least three gunmen and a police officer were killed, according to reports, which had conflicting information about the identity of the fifth victim.
Angry voters burned down more than a dozen polling stations in the central city of Kanaga in West Kasai province, an opposition stronghold, because of delays. A United Nations official said that residents had discovered stuffed ballot boxes, Agence France-Presse reported.
President Joseph Kabila, 40, is expected to defeat his closest rival, Etienne Tshisekedi, 78, and retain power. But analysts say procedures for monitoring the election and settling disputes are so flawed that further violence is likely in coming days, especially if both sides claim victory.
The voting system — a one-round, first-past-the-post system — favors Kabila, who faces 10 challengers. The opposition parties held unsuccessful talks about unifying in the run-up to the election.
Tension has been rising for days and Congo's security forces are on stand-by. Human rights observers have reported heavy-handed violence by police against opposition supporters in the months leading into the vote.
Clashes killed hundreds after the last vote in 2006, which unlike the present vote, was organized by the international community.
At least three people died in poll-related violence Saturday.
Some voting delays occurred Monday because voting materials failed to arrive on time, or at all. Some voting stations failed to open, according to news agencies. With 32 million voters, 63,000 polling booths and few roads, Congo's elections are a massive logistical challenge.
The opposition claims that many of those 63,000 polling stations don't really exist, feeding claims for vote manipulation.
It didn't help that the head of the national electoral commission, Daniel Nyanga, is a founding member of the ruling party who ran Kabila's 2006 election campaign in Kinshasa.
Congo is one of the world's most resource-rich nations, with $24 trillion in known mineral deposits. Yet it ranks last in the United Nations' human development index. Poverty is rife, with 60% of the population living on $1.25 a day.
The poll is Congo's second attempt at democracy since the end of civil war in 2003. Chronic instability persists in the east of the country, a region where Kabila exerts little control.
In parliamentary elections also held Monday, more than 18,000 candidates vied for 500 seats. In one Kinshasa constituency, some 1,700 candidates stood for office.
For months, analysts like the International Crisis Group have urged the government to delay the election, arguing in favor of having all parties agree to a late poll, rather than forcing through a punctual but flawed and chaotic vote.
— Robyn Dixon
Photo: Supporters of opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi on Monday show what they say are badly printed photocopies of election ballots found in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Jerome Delay / Associated Press