KINSHASA, Congo (AP) – After days of tension in Congo’s capital as the nation awaits election results, traffic began to flow once more, women selling cassava leaves took up their usual positions on the sides of roads and a few international airlines allowed their planes to resume flights to Kinshasa on Thursday.
But anxiety remained high that the Central African nation stretching over a territory as large as Western Europe would descend into violence, with supporters of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi vowing to take to the streets if President Joseph Kabila is declared the winner.
Outside the headquarters of Tshisekedi’s party, police fired tear gas and live rounds to push back the agitated crowd earlier in the day, witnesses said.
Victory seemed certain for the incumbent based on partial returns. Those results, representing 90 percent of the vote cast, gave Kabila a more than 14-point lead over Tshisekedi, who had 34 percent. In the capital’s best hotel, Kabila’s party had rented a ballroom and his supporters wearing T-shirts printed with his photograph were already holding a victory celebration before the election commission had named the winner.
Instead of issuing results as promised Thursday, the country’s election commission chief called a hasty news conference to announce another one-day postponement. “We need to double-check the results,” Daniel Ngoy Mulunda said late Thursday. “We are before a very demanding public.”
A spokesman for Tshisekedi’s party continued to say that Tshisekedi, not Kabila, had won and appealed to supporters to fight for their victory.
“We call on the Congolese people to mobilize themselves so as to protect this victory. Each person can do this in their own way, and in the manner that they see fit so that it will be felt everywhere, especially by this dictatorship which wants to impose a verdict based on cheating and on electoral fraud,” said Jacquemain Shabani, the secretary general of Tshisekedi’s party.
The election was marred from the start by massive technical shortcomings, from the late delivery of ballots to the chaotic tabulation centers where ballots were being dumped by the millions. There were not enough computers for poll workers to enter the data. Frequent power cuts plunged counting centers into darkness. The election commission failed to meet its Tuesday deadline for releasing results. They announced a 48-hour extension, which has now turned into a 72-hour one.
Kinshasa residents continued to cross the river separating Congo’s capital from Brazzaville, the capital of the smaller Republic of Congo, Congo’s northern neighbor.
Bobette Nzeuzi, a mother of two, was among the people waiting to cross the river swirling with eddies. She held her 5-month-old daughter on her lap, while her 7-year-old sat next to her. At their feet were three hastily packed bags, a bottle of deodorant poking out of a pocket with a half-closed zippers.
“The city is in trouble. My entire neighborhood has emptied out,” she said as she waited for the boat to leave. “I wanted to leave earlier, but we had to wait for my husband to get paid.”
Although international observers said the vote was flawed, they have stopped short of calling it fraudulent. Most say the irregularities were not widespread enough to have caused a change in outcome. However, the perception among opposition supporters is that Tshisekedi won, setting the stage for a confrontation.
Diplomats, who have met the 78-year-old Tshisekedi in recent days in an attempt to convince him to not incite his supporters to violence, say that the candidate is convinced of his victory.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media said: “There’s a real disconnect. On the one hand he says, ‘Obviously, I will respect the will of the ballot box–but I won.'”
The impasse has led some analysts to say that the provisional results should not be published right away, and that instead steps need to be taken to create transparency in a badly muddled process. For example, foreign embassies and international observation missions have impressed on election officials the need to publish results by polling station.
So far, the results issued by the electoral commission have been aggregated by province, making it impossible for political parties to check if the vote count they witness inside a specific polling place was correctly tabulated at the regional level.
“A week after presidential and legislative polls, the Democratic Republic of Congo faces a political crisis that could plunge it back into major violence,” according to a statement from the International Crisis Group. “To avert violence, Congolese authorities must take urgent measures to salvage a reasonably representative result out of a badly flawed process.”
Congo’s enormous geography has proved challenging both for the electoral commission organizing the vote as well as for the country’s government. Its vast rain forests in the east still harbor vicious rebel armies, including remnants of the Interhamwe, the militia responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.