KINSHASA, Congo - Two people were killed Saturday in pre-vote clashes in Congo's capital and police fired into a crowd that included tens of thousands of opposition supporters, prompting officials to ban further rallies as the vast central African nation prepares for a critical poll.
An Associated Press photographer saw at least two dead bodies after violence erupted Saturday between political supporters and after police fired bullets into the crowd at Kinshasa's airport.
Police also later fired tear gas to push the crowd away, but riot police manned the airport hours later to prevent opposition presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi and his entourage from leaving the scene.
Saturday's violence prompted the governor to call off political rallies ahead of Monday's vote. Governor Andre Kimbuta made the announcement on state television Saturday, even as the plane carrying Tshisekedi arrived at Kinshasa's airport. Tens of thousands of people had amassed at the airport to welcome his convoy.
"Because of the escalating violence seen in Kinshasa, all public demonstrations and other political meetings are canceled this Saturday," Kimbuta said. "This is for a better result of the electoral process. The urban authority calls on the population's patriotism."
It was not immediately possible to determine the total number of
casualties from Saturday's clashes.
Human rights groups had expressed fears about an atmosphere of
spiraling violence and hate speech ahead of the vote in the vast
mineral-rich nation. The outcome of the vote is almost certain to keep President Joseph Kabila in power.
Earlier this month in Kinshasa, gunmen fired on Tshisekedi campaigners putting up posters, wounding two. In the southern mining city of Lubumbashi, another 16 were injured in violence pitting Tshisekedi's supporters against a rival opposition party. Young people in the eastern city of Goma took to the streets after popular folk musician Fabrice Mumpfiritsa was kidnapped after he refused to sing songs supporting Kabila. He was found three days later, legs and eyes bound and so badly beaten he had to be hospitalized.
"We all know that the country is not ready to hold this election," said Jacquemain Shabani, the secretary general of Tshisekedi's party, which was the first major opposition party to stand up to former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the 1980s. "It's inevitable that it will bring conflict if they go ahead with it."
How the elections unfold will be a likely indicator of whether Congo is consolidating its fledgling democracy or returning to a state of widespread instability after decades of dictatorship and civil war, according to the International Crisis Group.
The violence is just one of the numerous challenges that could derail Monday's vote and re-ignite conflict. Tension is running high, partly because many polling stations have not yet received the necessary voting materials.
On Friday, just days before the poll, at least 33 of the 80 planes carrying voting materials to the provinces were unable to take off because of bad weather.
Election experts say it is unlikely the ballots will be able to reach the remote interior in time in a country with so few paved roads, and where there are some 60,000 polling stations spread out over a territory the size of Western Europe.
"We have been trying to sound the alarm but to no avail," said Jerome Bonso, coordinator of the Coalition for Peaceful and Transparent Elections.
"The end result of a democratic election should be the resolution of conflict. Instead, we're heading into an election which is by its very nature bound to aggravate conflict ..." he said. "And the planes carrying the voting materials have not even taken off yet."
Voters will be choosing between 11 presidential candidates and more than 18,000 candidates for the 500-seat parliament.
In a nation where a third of adults cannot read, voters will be handed a ballot as thick as a book, due to the overwhelming number of parliamentary contenders. Politicians are using campaign rallies to explain to voters where to find their names on the ballot paper.
Jason Stearns, former coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo and the author of a book on the country's political history, said the number of candidates is bound to create
confusion inside polling stations because the ballot is confusing even for those who know how to read. It will also create delays in an election that is supposed to take place in a single day, and may result in a large share of people not being able to cast their votes.
"There is an overwhelming number of candidates and voters will have a limited amount of time in voting stations," said Stearns, who pointed out that even the three best-known candidates, including Kabila, are informing voters at rallies of their place on the ballot paper.
"Even among the 11 presidential candidates, every one of their campaign advertisements stress their number on the ballot. Kabila is No. 33. Tshisekedi is No. 11," said Stearns.
It's the country's first election since the landmark 2006 vote which was considered the country's first democratic vote in 40 years, but was marred by weeks of street battles led by supporters of the losing candidate.
Congo's history of back-to-back wars also provides a backdrop. Kabila, a former rebel leader, first took control of the country a decade ago, after the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who ruled Congo after overthrowing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
He was elected president in 2006, a vote which was overseen and
organized by the U.N. The runner-up was former warlord Jean-Pierre
Bemba, now on trial at the Hague. He refused to accept defeat, unleashing his private army on the capital, leading to weeks of street battles. There are no warlords in the race for president this time, and none of the candidates have personal militias at their disposal, Stearns said.
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.