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JOHANNESBURG – The results of Congo's presidential election were delayed Sunday. Some 80 U.S. military personnel have been deployed to Central Africa to protect U.S. assets from possible "violent demonstrations" in Congo over the election outcome. The international community has warned Congo's government that the results must accurately reflect the people's will — and that internet service should be restored.
The Catholic Church, a powerful critic during two years of election delays, has angered Congo's ruling party by saying data collected by its 40,000 vote observers show a clear winner. While only the electoral commission can announce results, the church likely has determined that leading opposition candidate Martin Fayulu won.
Will Congo's government under departing President Joseph Kabila agree? Here's a look at the election as the country faces what could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960.
WHO ARE THE TOP CANDIDATES?
Kabila last year ended months of tense speculation by saying he would step aside. He put forward ruling party loyalist Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister under European Union sanctions for a sometimes violent crackdown on people protesting the election delay. Congo expelled the EU ambassador days before the vote. Shadary, who has predicted victory, is seen by many Congolese as likely to be president in name only while Kabila rules from the shadows to protect his wealth amassed from the country's rich mineral resources. Kabila, barred from serving three consecutive terms, has hinted he might run again in 2023.
Fayulu, a businessman and Kinshasa lawmaker, leads a coalition backed by two powerful opposition figures barred from running for president, former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba and former governor Moise Katumbi. Fayulu has accused Congolese authorities of impeding his campaign by blocking his flights; preventing some political activities in the capital, an opposition stronghold; and assaulting his supporters. Kabila has dismissed the allegations, while Fayulu has urged supporters to stay calm.
WHAT TROUBLES HAVE BEEN REPORTED?
Congolese election observers, opposition supporters and rights groups have alleged irregularities in the Dec. 30 vote, which Western observers were not invited to watch.
Some 1 million voters in the eastern cities of Beni and Butembo were barred from the election, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak. That alone could undermine the vote's credibility, some observers said. Protests followed, with some Ebola facilities vandalized.
The Catholic Church, whose mission deployed some 40,000 observers to polling centers, has said 38 percent of the stations were missing electoral materials more than three hours after polls opened. Twenty-three percent of its observers' reports said voting was suspended at some point because of troubles with voting machines, used in Congo for the first time. Overall, it said, the irregularities did not considerably impact voting.
Many people could not find their names on voters' lists. Some polling stations were moved at the last minute, while others were in prohibited areas such as military barracks, said the Symotel civil society group, which deployed about 19,000 observers. It said 24 percent of the polling stations it observed closed without allowing people in line to vote.
Human Rights Watch says election observers were blocked from "numerous" polling stations and vote-counting centers, and that Congolese soldiers or other armed groups allegedly tried to force people in several areas to vote for Shadary.
WHY IS THE INTERNET BLOCKED?
Internet and text-messaging were cut off the day after the election in an apparent effort to calm speculation on social media about the results among Congo's 40 million voters. The tactic is increasingly popular in some African nations. The United States has said internet service should be restored, warning that those who undermine the democratic process could face U.S. sanctions.
"These efforts to silence dissent could backfire considerably when the results are announced," said a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, Ravina Shamdasani, also noting intimidation of journalists, observers and rights activists. She called for peace at a "very sensitive" time.
It is not known if the delay in announcing preliminary results will delay the publication of the final election results, expected by Jan. 15, with the inauguration three days later.
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