The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is drawing attention to voting problems that could call into question the outcome of a presidential election that has already been delayed two years.
In a Dec. 31 statement, the bishops’ conference voiced concern about voting irregularities, including registered voters who were turned away from polling stations because their names were not on voting lists and election observers being expelled from polling stations by police officers.
The DRC bishops’ conference was among the organizations that sent election observers to polling locations around the country, commissioning more than 40,000 observers to report on the election process.
Conference officials also noted that an estimated 1 million people were unable to vote due to a deadly Ebola outbreak in some regions of the nation, with voting in some affected cities delayed until March, well after the new president is scheduled to take office.
Other election observers also reported problems including voting machine malfunctions, polling stations opening late, locations being changed on short notice, and an inability to cast votes privately, according to the BBC.
Nearly two dozen candidates are running in an election to determine the successor to President Joseph Kabila, who has spent the last 17 years in power. While the nation’s term limits required the president to leave office in 2016, he refused to step down.
The bishops in the country played a key role in mediating an agreement between the country’s ruling political coalition and opposition leaders, culminating in a Dec. 31, 2016 agreement that allowed Kabila to remain in office beyond his mandate but said he must step down after an election in 2018.
Kabila is backing his party’s candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Among the main opposing candidates are Martin Fayulu, a former oil executive, and Felix Tshisekedi, son of a prominent opposition party leader.
Tensions in the country remain high as the election unfolds. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been plagued by political corruption, instability, and violence throughout its history and has never seen a peaceful transition of power. In the lead-up to the election, dozens of people were killed protesting Kabila’s refusal to give up power and allow elections at the end of two terms.
Catholics in the capital of Kinshasa joined with Protestants earlier in the week to pray for the country at ecumenical services attended by some presidential candidates, Vatican News reported.
The bishops’ conference was planning to release a preliminary observation report early this week, but delayed the report’s release when internet connections and text message services were shut down across the country on Dec. 30. According to Vatican News, the DRC bishops hope to release their preliminary election report on Jan. 3.
The nation’s Independent National Electoral Commission said results of the election are expected by Jan. 6.
On Sunday, Pope Francis prayed during his weekly Angelus for people suffering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of violence and Ebola as polls opened.
“I hope everyone is committed to maintaining a peaceful climate that allows a regular and peaceful conduct of the elections,” he said.