Long-anticipated elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, already delayed by two years and a week, finally got underway on Sunday, but they were deeply flawed, with more than a million voters excluded from casting their ballots, most of them in opposition strongholds.
Across the country, many voters arrived at polling places only to find that their names were not on electoral rolls. Some voting centers opened seven hours late, partly because of a storm and also because electoral rolls had not arrived in time. Voting machines, in use for the first time, malfunctioned in a number of polling places.
The landmark vote is the country’s first transfer of power through the ballot box since it gained independence in 1960. It was supposed to mark the end of President Joseph Kabila’s nearly 18-year rule, although he recently insinuated that he was open to returning to power later.
The elections were originally scheduled to take place in 2016 but were delayed twice, allowing Mr. Kabila to remain in office beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit. They were supposed to have been held last Sunday, but were pushed back again by one week because of violence, technical problems and a raging Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo.
There were fears that voting irregularities on Election Day would incite violence, potentially plunging the country into even deeper chaos and possibly even igniting regional turmoil. Already, in the weeks before the vote, security forces had cracked down on protesters, killing several, and prevented opposition candidates from holding rallies.
But on Sunday, voting was subdued and there were no reports of widespread violence.
The elections, of which there are three — presidential, legislative and provincial, involving thousands of candidates — are taking place as Congo battles instability in the country’s eastern region. Three opposition strongholds, Beni and Butembo in the east and Yumbi in the west, were barred from participating.
The government has said they were excluded because of the Ebola outbreak in the east and violence in the west, but critics say it had months to prepare a contingency plan, raising questions over whether the exclusion was politically motivated.
Mr. Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister who is on a European Union sanctions list for human rights abuses, trailed behind two opposition candidates in polls as voting began. Nonetheless, he expressed confidence that he would easily win.
“I think that victory is already on my side,” he told journalists after casting his ballot in Kinshasa, the capital. Mr. Shadary has benefited from having the most airtime on television, even though his name resonates little across the country, which is two-thirds the size of western Europe. “I think that tonight I’ll already be president of the republic,” he said.
Opinion polls have consistently showed Martin Fayulu, the main opposition candidate, easily outpacing Mr. Shadary.
“It is salutary act for the departure of Kabila and the start of change, because the Congolese people have suffered 18 years of Mr. Kabila,” Mr. Fayulu told supporters after casting his vote.
Even though most Congolese believed that the elections would not be fair and transparent, many still braved torrential rains and long waiting times to cast their ballots, underscoring the nation’s overwhelming desire for a change in leadership.
In Beni, people cast paper ballots as a kind of protest, even though their votes would not count. They chanted anti-government slogans and sang, “Voting is our right and nobody can stop us.”
In Kinshasa, a voter named Julien Mombelenge said that his local polling center opened at 3 p.m., seven hours after voting should have started and just two hours before it was to close, although people who were in line at the closing time were still allowed to vote.
Jonas Mwema, another voter in Kinshasa, said that he had arrived at a polling booth to find that his name was not on the electoral list. “The head of the voting center is not letting us vote,” he said. “This is disorder and is badly managed.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference, one of the few institutions respected for its legitimacy, had pressured Mr. Kabila to step down. It said that voting machines were dysfunctional in 544 out of 12,300 polling places it monitored. It also said that more than 100 polling stations banned election observers from overseeing the process.
Steve Wembi contributed reporting.
Follow Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura on Twitter: @kimidefreytas.