By Cyrus Bengo

People in the Democratic Republic of Congo were voting Wednesday in a high-stakes general election, pitting the incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi against a fragmented opposition, while much of the east of the impoverished but mineral-rich country is mired in conflict.

Polls opened at 6:00 am (0400 GMT in the east; 0500 GMT in the west) in the vast central African nation, which straddles two time zones.

But many polling booths in the capital Kinshasa and the cities of Goma, Bukavu, Beni, Lubumbashi and Tshikapa faced delays, chaos or other problems, AFP journalists saw.

“It’s a big disappointment. There’s terrible disorder in the organisation,” teacher Jean Claude Nzine Cokola, grumbled, having still not cast his ballot after waiting for four hours in South Kivu province.

In the city of Beni in North Kivu province, Lucie Zawadi, a 42-year-old farmer, said she was pleased to be able to “fulfill (her) duty”.

“These elections are going to bring change,” she enthused.

DR Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, despite boasting rich mineral reserves.

It is Africa’s top copper producer and the world’s largest producer of cobalt — a key component of batteries used in electronics and electric vehicles.

But little wealth trickles down, in a country the size of continental western Europe.

Its sheer scale and lack of infrastructure mean that staging elections poses a daunting logistical challenge.

Presidential candidate Martin Fayulu, a 67-year-old former oil executive, was the first leading contender to cast his ballot Wednesday, in the capital Kinshasa.

Fayulu says he was the true winner of the 2018 election that brought Tshisekedi to power.

Voters still waiting in line at 5:00 pm will be given tokens and polling booths will stay open until they cast their votes, an official at the electoral commission told AFP.

The government declared a bank holiday for Wednesday, and as in previous elections, it has closed the borders and suspended domestic flights.

Around 44 million Congolese, in a nation of 100 million, are registered to choose their president as well as lawmakers in national and provincial assemblies, and local councillors.

More than 100,000 candidates are running for various positions, and while counting is set to begin as soon as polling stations close, results are not expected to be announced for several days.

Observation missions will be watching the voting process, with the largest one run by a union of Catholic and Protestant churches mobilising 25,000 election observers.

Leaders of the influential mission promised Tuesday to conduct a “parallel count” for the presidential election.

FOREIGN CANDIDATES Tshisekedi, 60, faces 18 challengers.

The incumbent, who took office in 2019 and is running for a second five-year term, is considered the front-runner in the single-round presidential vote.

Tshisekedi’s record, as he himself has acknowledged, is mixed.

He has presided over years of economic growth but little job creation and soaring inflation.

He is asking for another term to “consolidate his gains”.

Throughout the campaign, he also poured scorn on what he termed “foreign candidates” — suggesting that his opponents have dual loyalties and lack the will to stand up to Rwanda, which the DRC accuses of funding rebel groups on its soil.

Moise Katumbi, a 58-year-old businessman and former governor of mineral-rich Katanga province, is the main target of such attacks.

VIOLENCE-WRACKED EAST Armed conflict in eastern DRC overshadowed much of the electoral campaign.

Militias have plagued the troubled region for decades, a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and 2000s.

Tensions have resumed since the M23 group, which is allegedly backed by Rwanda, began capturing swathes of territory in late 2021.

Clashes with M23 fighters have subsided in recent weeks but the rebels continue to hold sway over large parts of North Kivu province.

Citizens living in those areas will not be able to vote.

Surgical gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, 68, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping rape victims, is also running for president.

All the major opposition candidates say they suspect the government of preparing electoral fraud.

Flory Tshimanga, a 32-year-old seller of mobile phone credits in Kinshasa, said he thought the vote would proceed without hiccups.

However, he added: “It’s when the results come in that there could be problems.”

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