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Voters wait for a polling station to open in the village of Bulenga in South Kivu, the Democratic Republic of Congo, on Dec. 20. Polling stations were not open due to technical problems.GORAN TOMASEVIC/The Globe and Mail

After a day of electoral chaos and delays in many parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, five opposition candidates are rejecting the country’s presidential vote and demanding a fresh election with a reorganized commission in charge.

Congo’s election authorities said they would push ahead with a second day of voting in some areas on Thursday. The first day was marked by widespread confusion and protests in many voting stations across the country, one of the largest and most populous in Africa.

The election, with nearly 44 million registered voters and an estimated cost of US$1.2-billion, has been closely watched because of Congo’s strategic importance as a key global source of critical minerals, and as home to carbon-absorbing forests. Its long-running wars and insurgencies, often with foreign military involvement, have fuelled instability in Central Africa and East Africa for decades.

Its last election, in 2018, was widely seen as rigged in favour of President Felix Tshisekedi, who was declared the winner even after leaked results showed him finishing second in the voting. He is favoured to win this week’s election, but the disarray on Wednesday could taint the results.

Local television and social-media videos revealed the extent of the problems across the country. Many voting stations did not open for several hours or longer, forcing frustrated voters to endure lengthy waits in long queues. In some places, angry voters stormed into polling stations, ransacked the centres, set fire to voting machines or stole them, and destroyed ballots and other election materials. In many cases, voter lists were incomplete and voting machines did not function properly, reports said.

By midday on Wednesday, nearly one-third of voting stations had not opened, while 45 per cent had experienced technical problems with their voting machines and 8 per cent had suffered incidents of violence, according to a coalition of Catholic and Protestant church groups, which had deployed 25,000 observers across the country.

Another citizen observer group, known as Symocel, said almost 60 per cent of polling stations had opened late.

Among the five candidates who rejected the vote in a joint statement on Wednesday night was the former oil executive Martin Fayulu, who – according to the leaked results – was the top vote-getter in the 2018 election, but officially finished second.

Earlier in the day, he had denounced the vote as “total chaos.” He said the confusion had been deliberately planned by Congo’s election commission. “There is no organization,” he told journalists.

Another of the five candidates was Denis Mukwege, a famed physician and Nobel Peace Prize winner. In an earlier statement, he had condemned the election as “chaotic” and riddled with irregularities. He said the vote was “evidently planned electoral fraud.”

The five candidates called for the election commission to be reorganized with new members to supervise a fresh vote. Several opposition leaders have alleged that the head of the election commission, Denis Kadima, is a close associate of Mr. Tshisekedi.

Another leading opposition challenger, wealthy mining tycoon Moise Katumbi, was not among the five candidates who called for a new vote. But he, too, complained of irregularities and confusion in the voting.

Congo’s election commission said in a statement that it would ensure that every voting station is open for the legally required period of 11 hours, even if they had to stay open on Wednesday night or reopen on Thursday morning.

The government, in a separate statement, said it condemned the “acts of vandalism” at some voting stations. But it praised the country’s voters for their “massive mobilization” on Wednesday.

Even before Wednesday’s voting, the election was facing criticism. Many voter cards were poorly printed and illegible because of smudging. The European Union cancelled its election observer mission because of restrictions that the government had imposed on it.

Several opposition candidates had faced violent attacks at their campaign rallies, and some said the government had prevented them from gaining access to the aviation fuel that they needed to campaign across the vast country.

Many of the country’s 6.9 million displaced people, forced to flee their homes because of wars in various regions, had difficulties in getting voter cards.

An estimated 1.7 million Congolese were entirely unable to vote on Wednesday because they live in conflict zones – especially in eastern Congo, where the Rwandan-backed M23 militia has occupied a huge swath of territory.

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