Image: A voter at the Imara polling station in Lubumbashi, Congo
Phil Moore  /  AFP - Getty Images
A voter at the Imara polling station in Lubumbashi, Congo, looks at a ballot page during presidential and parliamentary elections on Monday.
updated 11/28/2011 7:10:31 AM ET 2011-11-28T12:10:31

Voting began Monday with delays and setbacks in this massive nation pummeled by war for an election that could further consolidate the country's peace or drag Congo back into conflict.

Over the weekend, police lobbed tear gas at protesters. Opposition leaders and country experts had urged the government to delay the vote due to massive logistical problems, including the late delivery of voting materials, but the election proceeded anyway.

In a polling station in the capital, a poll worker cut orange police tape at the front of the door, marking the start of voting. But another polling station located in a nearby classroom inside the same Catholic school could not open because the ink used to mark the index fingers of voters hadn't been delivered.

The African country could be plunged into violence again if it is unable to agree on the results of the presidential and legislative election

"We can't start like this. We're not even properly dressed," said Baudouin Lusagila, the head of a polling station whose team lacked the signature blue vests printed with the logo of the election commission. "Of course I'm worried. There is too much improvisation. Too many delays."

PhotoBlog: Amid delays and setbacks, voting begins in Congo

Eleven candidates are vying for president. The vote is the second since the end of Congo's last war and the first to be organized by the government instead of the international community. There were delays at every step in the preparation and as of Sunday, 12 of the 156 voting districts had not yet received ballots. At polling stations that opened on time, lines were small, possibly reflecting fear among voters.

The government wanted to hold the election before the first week of December, when President Joseph Kabila's five-year term expires. On the eve of the vote, Kabila urged citizens to go to the polls and warned of what was at stake.

"Our country, the Democratic Republic of Congo has come a long way, from a situation of war, and of all manner of conflict whose end result was suffering," he said in an address on state television. "Let us be careful not to return to where we have come from. In participating in the vote tomorrow, we are guaranteeing the stability and the future of our country."

In Central Congo, this is the first opportunity in half a century for millions of people to vote. Central Congo is a stronghold of leading opposition presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi, who boycotted the 2006 vote and urged his supporters not to register to vote. Central Congo historically has complained of being marginalized, and seceded briefly after independence from Belgium in 1960.

More than 18,000 candidates are competing for the 500 seats in parliament. Posters of candidates featured their number on the ballot, which is as thick as a weekend supplement in a major newspaper. A third of Congolese adults can't read, a rate that is even higher among women, and many were showing up with slips of paper containing the number of their candidate.

Errors were quickly discovered on the ballot with candidate 30 missing altogether. Mboyo Ilombe, candidate 1151, appeared in the wrong spot, between 438 and 439.

'Prejudice the vote'
Inside a polling station at the Matonge High School in Kinshasa, a man who had come to vote for Ilombe came out from behind the voting screen to complain. "1151 is not there," he told the poll workers, handing them the thick ballot. They perused it and agreed with him, then shrugged their shoulders and said they didn't know what to do.

He went back behind the cardboard voting screen, and spent several minutes perusing the ballot, using the light on his cell phone to illuminate the names and photographs of politicians. "I found it," he called out, after discovering his candidate in the wrong place.

"This is going to prejudice the vote for this candidate," said the head of the polling station, Kalamu Wene. "What can we do? We don't have instructions on how to deal with this."

PhotoBlog: Two dead in Congo pre-election violence

The early light voter turnout Monday was a contrast with 2006, when people trudged in the dark to line up outside polling stations before dawn. Long queues built up even before balloting stations opened. About 70 percent of registered voters participated in that election.

The United Nations organized those elections and newly trained police, U.N. peacekeepers and African and European rapid reaction forces provided security. In this vote, Kabila belatedly asked South African troops to help distribute ballot papers.

In 2006, all leading presidential candidates were former warlords commanding armed militias. All those have been integrated into the national army, though militias and Ugandan and Rwandan rebels continue to wreak havoc in the east of the country.

Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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