After two years of setbacks, broken promises and delays, the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday effectively opened the starting gates for a crucial election that could alleviate – or perhaps worsen – the decades-long crisis gripping the vast central African nation.
“May the best person win,” the head of the electoral board, Corneille Nangaa, said, pre-empting the official start of campaigning by a day.
Voters on December 23 will choose a successor to outgoing President Joseph Kabila, who has constitutionally remained in power as caretaker leader even though his second and final elected term ended nearly two years ago.
At stake in the vote is political stewardship of a mineral-rich country that has never known a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.
Eastern DRC is ravaged by decades of inter-ethnic bloodshed and militia violence, as well as a deadly Ebola outbreak, testing a large UN peacekeeping mission.
Twenty-one candidates are registered by election officials to vie to replace the 47-year-old Kabila, who has ruled since January 2001, after his father, president Laurent-Desire Kabila, was assassinated.
Under international pressure against him seeking a third term, Kabila threw his support behind a chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, in August.
Shadary is one of 15 Congolese individuals under European Union sanctions, accused of human rights violations when he was interior minister between December 2016 and early 2018.
One of Shadary’s main rivals is Martin Fayulu, a little-known lawmaker who earlier this month was named the joint candidate of several – but not all – opposition parties that form a coalition in the parliament.
Fayulu was expected to arrive in the capital Kinshasa on Wednesday from Europe to drive his campaign to take the presidential Palais de la Nation.
Around half of DRC’s population of 80 million are eligible to vote.
The electoral board is standing by its decision to use 106 000 touchscreen electronic voting machines bought from South Korea, despite some opposition demands – notably by Fayulu – for paper ballots.
The government, which has a thorny relationship notably with the United Nations, has rejected all forms of international financial or logistical assistance for the election in a country nearly five times the size of France.
The UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO has proposed using its helicopters and planes to ferry imported voting machines to polling stations nationwide.
But Kinshasa wants to see MONUSCO gone by 2020, ending a 20-year presence including more than 16 000 pairs of boots on the ground at an annual cost of more than a billion dollars.