KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo opposition parties accused election officials of trying to provoke trouble by delaying Sunday’s scheduled presidential vote, and said they would not tolerate any further postponements.
Felix Tshisekedi, a leading opposition candidate, urged his supporters to stay calm despite the electoral board’s (CENI) decision on Thursday to delay the vote by a week.
The board announced the election, which has been delayed several times since 2016, would now take place on Dec. 30 due to a fire last week that destroyed voting materials.
The poll is meant to choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila, who is due to step down after 18 years in what would be Congo’s first democratic transition.
In remarks to the media and hundreds of chanting supporters, Tshisekedi accused the CENI, which the opposition says follows orders from the government, of trying to provoke his followers to protest in order to later accuse them of causing unrest.
“We are aware of this strategy. That’s why I ask you to remain calm and respect the position that we are announcing,” Tshisekedi said at the headquarters of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party.
The CENI has repeatedly defended itself against charges of bias and says it acts independently.
UDPS secretary-general Jean-Marc Kabund told supporters that any further delays would not be accepted, and the new election date of Dec. 30 was “a red line”.
“If there is a delay of the election after the 30th, you don’t need to wait for our instructions,” Kabund said.
Independent experts have questioned whether the one-week delay will be enough to organise the poll, both in Kinshasa and remote areas of Congo’s vast forested interior.
At a news conference on Friday, Joseph Olenghankoy, the president of a government commission charged with monitoring election preparations, urged authorities to accept logistical support from the United Nations to deploy voting materials.
The government has so far rejected assistance from foreign donors, including the 16,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, saying that would infringe on national sovereignty.
A U.N. spokeswoman in Kinshasa said the mission was prepared to provide logistical support if asked but had not received a request.
A CENI spokesman said the commission would ask for U.N. help if necessary but said: “For the moment, we are getting by with the means the government has made available to us.”
The International Rescue Committee, a New York-based aid group that operates in Congo, said on Thursday that further delays “would be exceptionally damaging to the country’s rule of law” and worsen a humanitarian crisis in which 13 million people need assistance due to hunger, disease and conflict.
Kabila’s refusal to step down when his mandate officially expired in December 2016 triggered violent protests in which security forces killed dozens of people and contributed to a spike in militia violence across the country as armed groups moved to exploit a perceived power vacuum.
Security forces fired live bullets and teargas last week to disperse supporters of Tshisekedi and the other leading opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, who are competing against Kabila’s preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
At least seven opposition supporters were killed in the violence, which the government blamed on opposition “extremists”, and Kinshasa’s governor suspended campaigning in the capital on Wednesday, citing security fears.
Additional reporting by Benoit Nyemba in Kinshasa and Fiston Mahamba in Goma; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Jon Boyle and Andrew Heavens