KINSHASA, Congo — Congo was in limbo Tuesday as the government dispatched helicopters to the remote corners of the country to pick up missing tally sheets, and officials announced a 48-hour delay in the publication of election results from last week's disputed presidential ballot.
The threat of unrest hung over this troubled capital and international airlines canceled their flights, as violence was feared. The U.S. Embassy ordered its staff and their families not to leave their residences until further notice. The American School of Kinshasa will be closed.
The delay was all but inevitable following an election that was marred by massive technical glitches, including the late delivery of ballots, some of which didn't reach polling stations until three days after the vote was supposed to take place. Even though it was clear that the election commission was not prepared for last week's ballot, the government rushed ahead with the election because the current president's five-year term expires Tuesday at midnight.
The 48-hour delay means that President Joseph Kabila will be staying in office past his legal mandate, and analysts worry that the country could slide into a situation of unconstitutional power which could stoke tension in Congo.
"As we haven't yet been able to receive the tally sheets from all 60,000 polling stations in the country, we decided to push back the publication by 48 hours," said Matthieu Mpita, the spokesman of the National Independent Electoral Commission. "It was our objective to make the deadline," he said, "but we need all the elements."
On state television, the presenter interrupted the coverage of a soccer match to read a statement from the commission announcing the 48-hour delay which it said was for the sake of the transparency of the election.
Earlier, officials said that helicopters had been sent to retrieve tally sheets from the distant corners of this enormous country where only 2 percent of roads are paved. The helicopters might succeed in bringing back the votes from the bush, but even in the capital poll workers were still far from done.
Congo is staging only its second democratic election and the process has been flawed at every step, from the late printing and delivery of ballots, to the chaotic counting centers where trucks were dumping containers filled with ballots and frequent power cuts interrupted the entry of data.
Over 3 million people registered to vote in the capital, Kinshasa, and observers say that only two of the four vote tabulation centers there had finished compiling results by Tuesday afternoon. Even at those two hubs, poll workers had misplaced results from hundreds of polling stations, said observers.
They were sorting through mountains of rice sacks containing ballots desperately trying to find them, said David Pottie of the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based observation mission established by former President Jimmy Carter.
Near the headquarters of the main opposition party, police fired tear gas and blasted water cannons to disperse supporters of Congo's 78-year-old opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, witnesses said.
With more than two-thirds of the vote counted, Tshisekedi was trailing with 36 percent of the 12.6 million votes tabulated so far. Joseph Kabila, the sitting president who is a former rebel commander and whose elite guard is already accused of gunning down at least 14 opposition supporters, had a nearly-insurmountable lead of 46 percent.
Election violence has already left at least 18 dead and more than 100 wounded, with most of the deaths caused by troops loyal to Kabila, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Congo's back-to-back civil wars in the 1990s consumed the region, and destroyed the nation whose population is now nudging 70 million. The country is ranked dead last on the United Nations' global survey of human development.
Although observers said they have not witnessed systematic fraud, only widespread irregularities, the impression among opposition supporters is that the vote is being manipulated in Kabila's favor.
At the International Criminal Court, where former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo appeared this week for crimes committed by his forces after he was declared the loser of last year's election, prosecutors issued a warning.
"Leaders from all sides must understand this: My Office is watching the situation in the DRC very closely. As we have shown in both Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire," said prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, referring to Ivory Coast by its French name. "Planning and executing attacks on civilians for electoral gain will not be tolerated."
"I urge leaders, commanders, and politicians on all sides to calm your supporters. Electoral violence is no longer a ticket to power, I assure you. It is a ticket to The Hague," he said.