KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo’s election board has postponed a long-anticipated presidential vote scheduled for Sunday by one week until Dec. 30 after a fire destroyed voting materials.
Already delayed repeatedly since 2016, the poll is meant to choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila, stepping down after 18 years in what would be Congo’s first democratic transition.
Following a meeting with candidates in the capital, the electoral commission (CENI) said it was unable to provide sufficient ballot papers for Kinshasa after a warehouse blaze last week destroyed much of the capital’s election material.
“We cannot organize general elections without the province of Kinshasa, and without the Kinois voters - who represent 10 percent of the electoral body,” CENI president Corneille Nangaa told journalists.
“The presidential, legislative and provincial ballots will take place on Dec. 30 2018.”
The decision may further stir the volatile and violent nation of 80 million people after several government crackdowns on opposition rallies in the run-up to the vote.
After the announcement, a crowd outside CENI headquarters started shouting in protest. Police pushed them back.
Security forces have killed dozens of people in the past two years demonstrating against Kabila’s refusal to step down when his mandate officially expired in December 2016.
Hundreds of university students took to the streets in Kinshasa on Thursday, protesting any delay to the vote.
Many Congolese hope the election can help draw a line under decades of conflict and economic stagnation.
Millions died in two wars around the turn of the century and dozens of militia remain active near the eastern borders, where they fight over ethnic rivalries and natural resources.
Earlier on Thursday, opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, one of the frontrunners, told Reuters it would be unacceptable for the election to be pushed back.
“The CENI president said there will be an election, rain or shine, on the 23rd of December,” Fayulu said. “We cannot accept a change of Mr. Nangaa’s position today.”
Explaining the CENI’s decision, Nangaa said 5 million additional ballot papers had been ordered from the provider in South Korea to replace those destroyed in Kinshasa, but only 1 million had arrived so far.
The last of the ballot papers are scheduled to arrive on Saturday night.
The postponement caps a chaotic week, which saw more than 100 people killed in fights between ethnic groups in northwestern Congo and clashes between police and opposition supporters in Kinshasa.
Those protests erupted after Kinshasa’s governor ordered a halt to campaigning over security fears.
International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned in a statement on Thursday that her office would not hesitate to take action if large-scale crimes were committed around the elections.
Campaigning had been due to end at midnight on Friday in what has boiled down to a race between Kabila’s preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, and two main challengers, Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi.
Shadary has a big advantage due to sizeable campaign funds and ruling party control of many media outlets.
However, a rare national opinion poll in October had Tshisekedi leading the race with 36 percent, well ahead of Shadary’s 16 percent. Fayulu had 8 percent.
Additional reporting by Sofia Christensen and Aaron Ross; Writing by Aaron Ross and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne