REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The Democratic Republic of Congo braced Tuesday for violent protests after the scheduled release late in the day of election results that likely will usher in a new term for President Joseph Kabila.
Supporters of the main opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, have already questioned the legitimacy of the election and are likely to take the streets. Early results indicated that Kabila would be the likely winner.
An international diplomatic mission has met with Kabila and Tshisekedi to urge peace and warn against a slide back into disastrous conflict, with the country still recovering from a civil war that killed millions and officially ended in 2003. The east remains chronically violent and unstable, despite the world's largest peacekeeping force.
Fueling the opposition anger is a widespread sense that last week's election was not only chaotic and disorganized but fraudulent, and a lack of faith in an electoral commission dominated by allies of the president. Observers have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in the voting and ballot counting. The government's failure so far to release individual polling-station counts has raised further doubts about the vote's credibility.
The deadline for the release of election results is midnight Tuesday, when Kabila's mandate expires.
Kabila has become increasingly unpopular as his decade in office has done little to improve the lives of the Congolese people, more than 60% of whom live in poverty despite some of the richest mineral resources on Earth.
But the advantages of incumbency and changes to the voting system will likely see him stay in office. The new voting system means he can win with less than 50% of the vote. In most African countries, if no one wins more than 50%, the two top candidates go to a runoff, which means the anti-incumbent vote can unite around one opposition candidate.
Analysts fear that other African leaders will adopt the Congo's voting system as a way to cling to power.
Preliminary results showed Kabila had gained 46% of the vote to 36% for Tshisekedi, his nearest rival in a crowded field. The opposition candidate is popular in Kinshasa, the capital, where it is feared that violence could explode in the days after the results are announced.
There are also fears of violence in other parts of the country, including the city of Lubumbashi in southern Katanga province, another Tshisekedi stronghold.
The divided opposition has accused Kabila of bribing parliamentarians to force the constitutional change to the voting system. It also complains that the electoral lists are full of ghost voters, and it mistrusts the process that has the Supreme Court, which is stacked with judges appointed by Kabila, resolve voting disputes.
Some observers have expressed doubts about whether the election commission will meet Tuesday's midnight deadline, but failure to announce a winner in time is likely to increase tensions.
An electoral commission spokesman told the Associated Press it might not meet the deadline.
"It depends whether we get the numbers in on time," the official said.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Congolese riot police stand guard on the streets in the eastern city of Goma on Tuesday ahead of the expected announcement of election results. Credit: Simon Maina / AFP/Getty Images