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Protesters waiting to cast their ballot and demonstrate outside the College St. Raphael polling station, in Kinshasa, on Dec. 30, 2018, while Democratic Republic of Congo's electoral commission president arrives for the Congo's general elections.LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images

After two years of official delays and months of logistical confusion, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has finally held its long-awaited election, but there are growing doubts that the vote will fulfill the government’s pledge of a peaceful transfer of power.

In darkened voting stations, many Congolese were still struggling to vote by the light of battery-powered lanterns and flashlights on Sunday night, hours after the polls had officially closed.

An independent poll, released just days before the election, found that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu was far ahead of the ruling party’s candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. The poll found that Mr. Fayulu was favoured by 47 per cent of respondents, with Mr. Shadary at 19 per cent.

But the logistical chaos could make it easier for the government to rig the vote, ensuring the ruling party’s continued grip on power, analysts warned. This, in turn, could provoke an eruption of violence among frustrated opposition supporters across the country, they said. Nearly half of voters said they were likely to protest in the streets if the election is rigged, according to the poll by the U.S.-based Congo Research Group.

Congo, a vast country of more than 80 million people with massive mineral wealth, is crucial to the fate of a volatile region in central Africa. After a series of wars in the 1990s that were stoked by the armies of neighbouring countries, Congo today continues to be hobbled by rebel groups and armed clashes in several parts of the country.

President Joseph Kabila, who has held power in Congo since the assassination in 2001 of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, managed to extend his term by an additional two years by delaying the latest election. The vote on Sunday had been touted as the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Congo’s history, but the opposition parties are convinced that Mr. Kabila is fuelling the logistical disarray as a way of keeping power.

The election’s credibility has already been severely damaged by a barrage of widely questioned decisions by Congo’s electoral commission, including a last-minute election delay and an announcement last week that the voting will be further delayed in several opposition strongholds: the eastern cities of Beni and Butembo, hit by an Ebola outbreak, and the western city of Yumbi, where communal violence has occurred. (Official results are set to be announced Jan. 15, but some results are expected sooner.)

In effect, this meant that about 1.25 million voters in opposition-leaning cities were disenfranchised from the presidential vote, since the results are likely to be announced before they can cast their ballots.

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Voters check the roll at the Monsignor Moke school complex in Victoire district in Kinshasa, on Dec. 30, 2018, during the Congo's general elections.MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

To protest that decision, people organized their own elections in some of the excluded districts on Sunday, using improvised voting materials. Thousands of people turned up to vote in the unofficial elections, signalling their displeasure at the electoral commission’s decision, even though their votes won’t be formally counted.

In several other opposition strongholds, many voters were kept outside the voting stations for hours because of logistical problems, including breakdowns in electronic voting devices and delays in sending electoral rolls to the stations. Electricity shortages compounded the problems.

Early reports suggested that the logistical problems had contributed to a low voter turnout. Some voting stations were reporting a turnout of only 40 per cent to 50 per cent.

A Catholic church group, which deployed about 40,000 election observers on Sunday, said its teams had witnessed cases of voters being denied entry to voting stations and observers being excluded from the vote counting. About 830 voting stations did not open on schedule, it said.

The International Crisis Group, in a report last week, warned of the high risk of postelection turmoil in Congo, especially because of the controversial decision to delay voting in several opposition strongholds.

“Major cities will likely see large post-election protests, potentially met by a heavy-handed response from the Congolese security forces,” said the report by the group, an independent analysis organization that focuses on conflict prevention.

It said the government has recently deployed military reinforcements in several key cities, which suggests “it is preparing a harsh response to any unrest.”

Two of the cities with delayed voting are in volatile North Kivu province, which could damage efforts to stabilize the war-ravaged province, the group noted.

Even before the latest delay to voting in the opposition strongholds, Congo’s election was unlikely to be free and fair, analysts said. Two of the most popular opposition leaders had been excluded from the election. Most international observer teams were denied permission to monitor the vote. And election rallies were banned for several days in another opposition stronghold: the capital, Kinshasa.

Mr. Kabila’s handpicked successor, Mr. Shadary, is seen as a proxy for the president, allowing Mr. Kabila to continue his rule from behind the scenes. Mr. Shadary, a former interior minister, is under sanctions from the European Union for alleged human-rights abuses and attempts to undermine democracy.

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