KINSHASA, Congo — The announcement of the results of the Congo’s presidential election has been postponed, the country’s top electoral official said.
The winner of the Dec. 30 election will not be made public Sunday as expected, the head of the national electoral commission Corneille Nangaa told The Associated Press. The electoral commission will confirm the delay later Sunday.
The postponement in announcing the winner may increase tensions, as some Congolese see it as a way for President Joseph Kabila's ruling party to manipulate the results in order to cling to power.
The Catholic Church, an influential voice in this strongly Catholic nation, said that it already knows there is a clear victor, according to data reported by its 40,000 election observers deployed in polling stations. The church urged the electoral commission to announce accurate results.
As regulations say only the electoral commission can announce election results, the church did name the winner. The government has already cut internet access across the vast Central African country to prevent any speculation on social media about who might have won the election.
Congo faces what could be its first democratic, peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. Election observers and the opposition have raised concerns about voting irregularities as the country chooses a successor to longtime ruler Kabila, although a landslide win by one of the opposition candidates could remove any doubts that the election was skewed to the ruling party's candidate.
The United States and the African Union, among others, have urged Congo to release results that reflect the true will of the people. The U.S. has threatened sanctions against those who undermine the democratic process. Western election observers were not invited to watch the vote.
While Congo has been largely calm on and after the Dec. 30 vote, President Donald Trump informed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that about 80 military personnel and "appropriate combat equipment" had been deployed to neighboring Gabon to support the security of U.S. citizens and staffers and diplomatic facilities. More will be deployed as needed to Gabon, Congo or neighboring Republic of Congo, he wrote.
Ahead of the vote, the U.S. ordered "non-emergency" government employees and family members to leave the country.
Congo's ruling party, which backs Kabila's preferred candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, has called the church's attitude "irresponsible and anarchist."
Leading opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker, has accused Congolese authorities of impeding his campaign. His campaign manager, Pierre Lumbi, on Saturday accused the electoral commission of being "in the process of postponing the publication of the results."
The delay is because of the slow compilation of the results by electoral officials. By Friday evening, the commission had compiled only 44 percent of results, said Jean-Pierre Kalamba, who said the process had been slowed by the requirement that only manually counted ballots could be used.
At stake is a vast country rich in the minerals that power the world's mobile phones and laptops, yet desperately underdeveloped. Some 40 million people were registered to vote, though at the last minute about 1 million voters were barred by the electoral commission which cited a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in eastern Congo. The eastern region is an opposition center and critics said the disenfranchisement of voters there undermines the election's credibility.
The presidential election took place more than two years behind schedule, while a court ruled that Kabila could stay in office until the vote was held. The delay led to sometimes deadly protests as authorities cracked down, and Shadary is now under European Union sanctions for his role in the crackdown as interior minister at the time.
Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father was assassinated, is barred from serving three consecutive terms but has hinted that he could run again in 2023. That has led many Congolese to suspect that he will rule from the shadows if Shadary takes office.
Internet and text messaging services were cut off the day after the election in an apparent effort by the government to prevent social media speculation about the results. The U.S. has urged the government to restore internet service, and a U.N. human rights spokeswoman has warned that “these efforts to silence dissent could backfire considerably when the results are announced.”