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Officials from Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) count presidential elections ballots at tallying centre in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Jan. 4, 2019.BAZ RATNER/Reuters

In the latest omen of a deepening political crisis, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s election commission has delayed the scheduled release of official results in a crucial presidential election, lending credence to growing reports that an opposition candidate may have won a clear victory.

The first results from the Dec. 30 election were due to be released on Sunday, but the election commission refused to release any information, even though it acknowledged that it had counted 53 per cent of the vote.

The election could be historic: the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the history of Congo, a war-ravaged country of 80 million people with vast mineral wealth in the heart of a volatile region in Central Africa.

Many observers are worried about a violent reaction in Congo’s streets if the election commission declares a victory for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is seen as a proxy for President Joseph Kabila.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced late on Friday that he will deploy about 80 combat-equipped troops to Gabon, north of Congo, in case they are needed to protect the security of U.S. citizens and diplomatic missions in Congo. More U.S. troops could be deployed if needed in Gabon or Congo, he said in a letter to Congress.

The government of Mr. Kabila, who has held power for 18 years since the assassination of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, had already postponed the election for more than two years since its original date in 2016.

The Catholic Church, which deployed about 40,000 observers at the 75,000 voting stations on election day, is widely reported to have concluded that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu won the election, defeating Mr. Shadary, who had been handpicked by Mr. Kabila as the ruling party’s candidate. Opinion polls before the election had made the same prediction.

In its last-minute announcement of the postponement on Sunday, the election commission did not say when it would release the results, deepening the mystery and the political tensions.

“We ask the nation to remain patient for the time it will take to consolidate all our data,” commission president Corneille Nangaa said in a statement on Sunday.

The commission is already facing accusations that it is biased in favour of the ruling party. It cancelled voting in three opposition strongholds, preventing about 1.25 million voters from participating in the presidential election, and it allowed logistical problems to suppress the voter turnout in other opposition-leaning areas, where many voting stations did not open their doors for several hours on voting day, leading to a low turnout.

In an attempt to suppress any speculation on the election results, the government has cut internet access and text-messaging services, closed several opposition-supporting media outlets, issued stern warnings to foreign media and blocked the signal of Radio France Internationale, whose reports are widely followed in Congo.

Many opposition supporters are convinced that the election commission is delaying the results to buy time for Mr. Kabila to find a way to manipulate the results or negotiate a backroom deal with the opposition. But any attempt to rig the election will now face a strong challenge from the Catholic Church, which is hugely influential and popular in Congo.

The group representing Congo’s Catholic bishops said last week that its thousands of observers had gathered evidence that there was a clear winner in the election. It did not publicly name the winning candidate, but it is widely reported that the Catholic observers have identified Mr. Fayulu, the leading opposition candidate, as the winner.

The organization representing the Catholic bishops warned that there will be popular anger across Congo if the official results are not “true to the verdict of the ballot box.” It left little doubt that it would not hesitate to challenge the official results if they are contradicted by its own evidence.

The statement by the Catholic bishops has infuriated the government. Officials accused the bishops of breaking the law and inciting rebellion.

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