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A supporter of one of DR Congo MP candidate points at electoral posters in Lubumbashi on Dec. 20, 2018.CAROLINE THIRION/AFP/Getty Images

A much-delayed election in one of Africa’s biggest countries has been postponed again, inflicting further damage on the credibility of the vote in a crucial region of the continent.

The election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been repeatedly delayed over the past two years, will be postponed for another week because a fire has destroyed ballots and voting machines in the capital, according to an announcement by election authorities on Thursday, just three days before the scheduled vote.

Analysts warned that the latest delay will heighten the risk of violent clashes between security forces and frustrated opposition supporters, who have already seen two of the most popular opposition leaders excluded from the ballot.

The vote was constitutionally required in 2016. After lengthy delays by the government for what it said were logistical reasons, the election was finally scheduled for Sunday, but now it has been moved to Dec. 30. It means a further extension of the rule of Congo President Joseph Kabila, who has held power for nearly 18 years.

There have been widespread doubts that the election will be a fair contest. The government has denied permission for most international observer teams to monitor the vote, and the planned touch-screen voting technology has sparked criticism. Several people have been killed at campaign rallies and local authorities on Wednesday banned all election rallies in the capital, Kinshasa.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, the war-crimes tribunal based in The Hague, warned on Thursday that Congo is facing “the risk of escalating violence that could lead to the commission of grave crimes.”

The chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she is concerned by the “growing tensions” around the Congo election and will be closely monitoring it. Election violence could lead to large-scale crimes against humanity, which fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction, she said. Anyone who “incites or participates in mass violence” could be prosecuted, she warned.

Congo, with a population of more than 80 million, has never had a democratic or peaceful transition of power since its independence from colonial rule in 1960. With its long history of wars and coups in a volatile region of central Africa, and with its vast mineral wealth that has attracted multibillion-dollar mining investments from Canada and elsewhere, Congo is seen as one of the most strategically important countries in Africas and its election is being closely watched.

Mr. Kabila, who has often been accused of corruption in investigations by international media and independent research groups, is not a candidate in this election. He has anointed a trusted lieutenant, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, as his successor.

Mr. Shadary, a former interior minister, is one of 15 Congolese officials who are under sanctions by the European Union for alleged abuses of human rights and attempts to undermine democracy.

In recent days, Mr. Kabila and his government have repeatedly insisted that the election on Sunday would not be delayed. But the Independent National Election Commission (CENI) abruptly announced on Thursday that it was not ready to hold the election on Sunday because it still had not replaced all of the millions of ballot papers that were destroyed in a mysterious warehouse fire on Dec. 13.

Politicians and analysts on Thursday were debating whether the delay was a deliberate government strategy to retain power and avoid the risk of defeat in the election.

“At the very least, it is incompetence at the highest level, in a very volatile political environment,” said Stephanie Wolters, a Congo expert at the Institute for Security Studies, an Africa-based think-tank.

“The delay has the potential to be explosive,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “But it makes us wonder about the government’s real intentions. And it means that CENI has no credibility left.”

The small number of international election observers allowed into Congo is “pitiful” and “dismally inadequate” for a country of Congo’s vast size, she said.

One of the leading opposition candidates, Martin Fayulu, said the latest election delay was an unjustified “charade.” His statement was signed by two other prominent opposition leaders, Moise Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, both of whom have been prohibited from running in the election.

After the ban on election rallies in Kinshasa earlier in the week, Mr. Fayulu said the government is manipulating the election to cling to power and pillage the country.

Police in Kinshasa fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of his supporters on Wednesday. Earlier in the campaign, police repeatedly disrupted his campaign rallies with tear gas, water cannons and bullets, and his plane has been denied permission to land at planned campaign stops.

In recent interviews with international media, Mr. Kabila has vowed to remain in politics and has left open the possibility that he could seek the presidency again in 2023 when he is legally permitted to run again.

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