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Polls open as DR Congo chooses successor to longtime leader Kabila

Patrick Meinhardt, AFP | A man casts his vote at the Katendere voting centre in Goma on December 30.

Voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo go to the polls on Sunday in elections that will shape the future of their vast and troubled country amid fears that continuing unrest could overshadow the ballot.

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Scores of polling centres had not yet opened even hours after Congo's presidential election officially began, the electoral commission chief confirmed Sunday, as voters shouted "We wanted to vote!" and frustrated people walked away.

Millions of Congolese electors are choosing a successor to President Joseph Kabila, who is stepping down two years after his term limit expired – a delay that sparked bloody clashes and revived traumatic memories of past turmoil.

The vote gives DR Congo the chance of seeing its first peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

But analysts say the threat of violence is great, given the many organisational problems and wide-ranging suspicion of Kabila.

The election's credibility has already been strained by repeated delays, the risk of hitches on polling day and accusations that electronic voting machines will produce a rigged result.

Delays blight DR Congo's elections

On the eve of the vote, talks between key candidates to avert post-election violence broke down.

Opposition front-runners Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi refused Saturday to sign a proposed peace pledge, saying election officials had failed to make suggested changes to the text.

The announcement came after the pair had met with the Independent National Election Commission (CENI) as well as Kabila's preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

The UN, the United States and Europe have loudly appealed for the elections to be free, fair and peaceful – a call echoed on Wednesday by the presidents of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and the neighbouring Republic of Congo.

Opposition chance?

Polling stations opened in the east of the country a little after their scheduled time of 4am (GMT) and an hour later in Kinshasa and the west, with electoral officials and observers the first to cast their ballots in Lubumbashi.

"I'm excited to vote, to be able to choose at last," one 18-year-old student named Rachel told AFP.

In one polling station, electoral officials were still adjusting voting machines and in another a technician needed to restart a machine that had broken down, an AFP reporter saw.

The last polling stations are due to close at 4pm (GMT).

Twenty-one candidates are standing in the presidential election, which is taking place simultaneously with ballots for the national legislature and municipal bodies.

Contenders include Kabila's champion Shadary, a hardline former interior minister facing EU sanctions for a crackdown on protesters.

His biggest rivals are Fayulu, until recently a little-known legislator and former oil executive, and Tshisekedi, head of veteran opposition party the UDPS.

If the elections are "free and fair" an opposition candidate will likely win, according to Jason Stearns of the Congo Research Group, based at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

However, "the potential for violence is extremely high", Stearns warned.

Between 43 and 63 percent of respondents said they would not accept the results if Shadary is declared the winner, he said. And between 43 percent and 53 percent said they did not trust DRC's courts to settle any election dispute fairly.

However, Kabila said he was confident "everything will go well on Sunday".

"I want to reassure our people that measures have been taken with the government to guarantee the safety of all sides, candidates, voters and observers alike," he said in his end-of-year address broadcast Saturday.

Frail giant

Eighty times the size of its former colonial master Belgium, the DRC covers 2.3 million square kilometres (920,000 square miles) in the middle of Africa, behind only Algeria in area on the continent.

Gold, uranium, copper, cobalt and other riches are extracted from its soil, but little of that wealth trickles down to the poor.

In the last 22 years the country has twice been a battleground, drawing in armies from around central and southern Africa.

>> Resource-rich DR Congo, wracked by political instability and violence

The legacy of that era endures today in the DRC's eastern border region, where ruthless militias have carried out hundreds of rapes and killings.

Insecurity and an ongoing Ebola epidemic in part of North Kivu province, and communal violence in Yumbi in the southwest of the country, prompted the authorities to postpone the elections in those areas until March – long after the provisional results are due on January 6.

Kabila said the vote would take place "as soon as the situation allows it", but legal experts say the postponement is unconstitutional.

Around 1.25 million people out of an electoral roll of 40 million are affected by the delay.

No explanation has been offered as to how delaying the vote will affect the official outcome.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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