STANDING ON A chair in a shabby classroom, a technician uses his teeth to peel the plastic off the end of a cable, before attaching it to some exposed wires that dangle around a light bulb. “Soon the machine will work again,” he says cheerfully to a queue of voters, most of whom have waited for more than five hours to cast their ballots. Where are the spare batteries that for months the electoral commission promised would be supplied? “Oh, in some urban areas we don’t have them, but luckily we have had electricity all day today,” replies the technician.
Across Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, some 544 voting machines did not work on presidential polling day, December 30th. The electronic tablets, nicknamed machines à voler (stealing machines), did little to redeem their dodgy reputation. They were hard to use. Many malfunctioned. Officials from the electoral commission (which many people think is in President Joseph Kabila’s pocket) helped voters a bit too much, nudging them to cast ballots for the president’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Opinion polls in such a vast and disorderly place as Congo must be treated sceptically. Nonetheless, the ones before the election showed that the main opposition candidates were far more popular than Mr Shadary, a former interior minister with a reputation for cracking heads. Martin Fayulu, a successful former oil executive, promised better governance and less corruption. Félix Tshisekedi, the son of a dead democracy activist, vowed rather improbably to raise average incomes nearly tenfold.
Mr Shadary, by contrast, is seen as offering more of the same. In a country where nearly everyone is poor, rebels rape and rob with impunity and officials are mostly predatory, that is hardly appealing.
Still, Mr Shadary has advantages that the other candidates lack. In one polling station in Kinshasa, where the government is heartily disliked, your correspondent saw a limping old lady failing to fend off the “assistance” given by an election official, who lingered nearby as she voted. In another the head of a voting station forgot the password for the machines and had not managed to turn any of them on by 2pm, complained Vital Kamerhe, a member of the opposition. Some polling stations in Limete, a district in Kinshasa where Mr Tshisekedi lives and enjoys massive support, opened four hours late. Officials said they did not have all the necessary voting materials. Although polling places were meant to close at 5pm, some were still open at 9pm. Even so, large numbers of frustrated would-be voters were turned away when the doors were closed.
Voting was barred in two eastern regions where the president is widely detested. The reasons given were semi-plausible: insecurity caused by marauding rebels and an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. But still, opposition supporters smelled a rat. In one excluded city, Beni, residents queued up outside makeshift polling stations and staged a mock vote in protest (pictured).
Power in Congo has never changed hands peacefully via the ballot box. Its former leaders were either shot or forced to flee. Mr Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, has tried hard to derail the democratic process. An election he won in 2011 was widely seen as a sham. When his supposedly final term expired in 2016, he refused to step down, citing the difficulty of organising an election in such a chaotic country. His police shot and killed people taking part in pro-democracy rallies. He clung to office unconstitutionally for another two years. When mounting international pressure forced him to call an election, he blocked his two biggest rivals (Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba) from standing.
Mr Kabila made sure that Mr Shadary’s campaign was far more visible than his rivals’. His message boomed out constantly on national radio and television. Opposition candidates struggled to be heard.
Intimidation was rife. When Mr Fayulu hosted rallies, the police shot at his supporters. After three people were killed, Mr Fayulu was banned from campaigning in the capital. In some eastern provinces the army put a boot on the scale. “Soldiers…accompanied me to the booth and told me that if I didn’t vote for Shadary I would be arrested,” one voter said in a message that spread on social media.
On the plus side, the capital and most of the country remained calm by Congolese standards. However, if Mr Kabila’s chosen successor is announced as the winner, perhaps at the end of this week, people will be furious. And there is no guarantee that Congo will remain calm.