By Giulia Paravicini and Fiston Mahamba
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Polling stations in Democratic Republic of Congo are ill-prepared for Sunday's presidential election, diplomats and an observer mission said, as new polling showed opposition candidate Martin Fayulu favoured to win.
Frustration has mounted across the vast, shakily governed Central African country after repeated election delays and blunders as well as a decision this week to shelve voting in several opposition strongholds.
Protests flared for a second straight day in eastern cities in response to the decision to cancel voting in Beni and Butembo in the east and Yumbi in the west. Demonstrators see it as a manoeuvre by the government to suppress the vote, rather than a precaution due to an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.
In the eastern city of Goma, police fired tear gas during a standoff with protesters and demonstrators in Butembo barricaded streets and set fires at crossroads, according to local police.
Activist group Lucha said police had arrested 18 of its members during the protest in Butembo. The police confirmed arrests had been made but did not say how many.
The election is meant to bring about the first democratic transition of power in mineral-rich Congo, where regional wars around the turn of the century resulted in millions of deaths.
But a chaotic election day could ignite new violence, as was the case after the 2006 and 2011 elections.
Last week the election was pushed back to Dec. 30 due to a lack of ballot papers in the capital Kinshasa. At the time, the national electoral commission (CENI) said preparations would be complete by the new date.
But two days ahead of the ballot, only about 60 percent of election materials - including sheets to tabulate the vote - have been delivered to balloting stations across the country, three foreign diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Opposition leaders have accused authorities of trying to rig the vote in favour of outgoing President Joseph Kabila's preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, using electronic voting machines. The government denies this.
"If the results sheets don't arrive on time then it means that the vote results will be transferred via the voting machine, and that is going to inflame suspicions of fraud," said one of these diplomats, who has been in recent contact with CENI officials.
CENI spokespeople could not be immediately reached for comment, but have said that the announced results will be based on hand counts of print-outs from the machines - as the opposition has demanded.
According to an internal U.N. document seen by Reuters, the CENI has increased the number of voters per polling station in Kinshasa to 700 from the promised 600 by removing 1,094 polling stations.
As a result, the capital could face daunting 20-hour queues to vote, based on the average time it takes to use the voting machines, said Sylvain Lumu, of SYMOCEL, a domestic election observation mission.
Polls are scheduled to remain open for 11 hours.
"All these measures aim to decrease Kinshasa's voting power, since as you know Kinshasa is a city whose heart goes to the left," he said, adding that 5,000 of his roughly 20,000 observers were still waiting for accreditation.
CENI has acknowledged that polling stations were reorganised, but said it was necessary after a warehouse fire two weeks ago burned 80 percent of voting machines in Kinshasa.
Observers from the Catholic Church, African Union and Southern African Development will be present for the vote. But the government has refused to accept election monitors from the European Union and U.S.-based Carter Center, which said Kabila's re-election in 2011 was marred by widespread fraud.
Public support for Kabila's preferred successor, Shadary, has remained flat in recent weeks even as the popularity of Fayulu, the joint opposition candidate, has soared.
The latest poll by the New York University-affiliated Congo Research Group (CRG) showed Fayulu leapfrogging from third place in October to the top spot with 47 percent support. He was ahead of the former frontrunner, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, on 24 percent, and Shadary on 19 percent.
CRG updated those figures slightly from earlier on Friday so as not to take into account non-respondents.
Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil company manager, was little known when he was picked as the joint candidate of an opposition coalition in November, but extensive campaigning, including in Ebola-hit Beni, has since heightened his profile.
The unrest seen over the past week could spread depending on the outcome of the election, according to the poll, which found that 48 percent of respondents would certainly or probably protest if the vote appeared to be rigged.
That would also affect the response to the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak - the second-deadliest history - which is believed to have killed more than 350 people this year.
International relief group Oxfam said on Friday it was suspending its response near Beni and Butembo due to the past days' street protests.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Aaron Ross and William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)
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Updated Date: Dec 29, 2018 00:07:46 IST