The first round of Congo’s legislative elections was marked by chaos on Sunday, with long delays, protesters crying foul and about 40 smaller opposition parties boycotting the ballot.
In neighbourhoods of the capital, Brazzaville, and the economic capital, Pointe-Noire, several polling stations had still not opened by noon, five hours after they were supposed to, officials and local reporters said.
However, vote counting began at about 6pm local time in some areas, including the capital, despite continued voting in polling stations that had opened late.
Several heads of polling stations earlier voiced their indignation, saying the ballot was poorly organised. ”I am the head of this polling station and I don’t even know the members due to assist me,” said one voting official. ”Usually there is a training course, but this time there has been nothing. It’s a real mess.”
A frustrated voter vented his anger at Brazzaville’s northern Poto-Poto quarter. ”What a country!” he said. ”It’s as if one has never organised elections here.”
There were also difficulties in Pool, a district in the south-east where clashes between rebels and government forces prevented the previous elections from taking place in 2002.
”It’s total disorder,” said Frederic Bitsangou, alias Ntumi, a former rebel leader turned lawmaker in the region following a 2003 ceasefire.
In two voter precincts in south-west Congo, angry locals were preventing voting from taking place after noticing anomalies on the electoral lists, candidates said.
The opposition in Congo, the smaller, oil-rich neighbour of the Democratic Republic of Congo with about 3,7-million people, has for weeks criticised the government of President Denis Sassou Nguesso, in power since 1997, for the way the elections have been organised.
While about 40 parties refused to take part in what they have called an ”electoral masquerade”, the main opposition movements, despite their criticism, decided to join the electoral battle.
The ruling Congolese Labour Party, which held 115 seats in the 137-seat National Assembly, is expected to retain its absolute majority in the elections, following a second round of voting set for July 22.
Meanwhile, protesters heightened the chaos by taking the law in their own hands. In Moussendjo, a town of 25 000 inhabitants, ”12 of the 13 candidates, together with locals, toured the town to have polling stations closed down”, opposition candidate Emmanuel Bogouanza said.
He said that the electoral lists contained some names twice, included fictitious entries, while some voters found their names were absent.
In the central town of Diambala, 300 youths were surrounding the house of the local prefect to prevent the distribution of electoral equipment after allegations that voters were being ”imported” from Brazzaville and that minors had been given voting cards, candidate Seraphin Onsuene said.
Many voters simply walked away after seeing the polling stations had failed to open on time. In other places, voters’ rolls were missing or polling officials had not turned up.
At the capital’s town hall, a major voting centre everything was ready at 10am local time apart from the polling officials who failed to show up. ”Some voters came but went away when they saw nothing was ready. It’s not certain they will return and this could have an impact on the turnout,” said Bauvilier Kakou in the capital’s southern Bacongo suburb.
During a press conference, the head of the national electoral commission, Henri Bouka, said on Saturday night that all ”practical arrangements have been made” to assure proper voting at the polls. — Sapa-AFP