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The Republic of Congo faces a troubled, long-delayed election

The Congolese people, whose lives have been beset by wars, coups and grinding poverty, would have had their first shot in nearly 60 years at a democratic transfer of power in elections Sunday.

But the legitimacy of this historic vote is already in peril.

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Opposition rallies have been broken up and rally-goers have been arrested in droves. A mysterious fire burned nearly 80% of the capital's electronic voting machines, which are being deployed for the first time. That led Congo's election commission to delay the vote by a week, but in rural areas, many polling stations still do not have machines, which has raised questions of large-scale disenfranchisement.

More than a million voters in the Ebola-stricken cities of Beni and Butembo — both opposition strongholds — were told on Wednesday that security and sanitary concerns meant they would not be able to vote along with the rest of the country.

As seen from the capital, Kinshasa, the government of President Joseph Kabila may be staging a "Potemkin election," as one senior Western diplomat put it. In any case, few foreign observers have been accredited to witness the vote.

But in rural areas where most Congolese people live, the election is still seen as a chance to bring about progress that Kabila's 18 years in power has failed to deliver.

"We are not stupid. We know that everything exists in the Congo to make us all very rich people — the minerals, the soil, the rivers. But we have a dictator who takes it all for himself," said Jean-Claude Boanga, who lives on the outskirts of Mbanza-Ngungu, a town five hours south of Kinshasa.

Boanga smoked a cigarette on Christmas Day underneath an imposing corridor of power lines that bring electricity from the country's Inga Dams to Kinshasa. Congo's electrification rate is one of the world's lowest at just 9%, and an abysmal 1% in rural areas.

"Here we are on Christmas, sitting right beneath them, and we can't even see what we are cooking," said Boanga.

While snippets of development have reached towns like Mbanza-Ngungu, smaller villages have remained almost completely out of the government's reach. Bonde, for instance, is three hours from Mbanza-Ngungu, and sits on the edge of a lush, remote escarpment.

Roads here are impassable in the rainy season, and the lone schoolhouse is so decrepit that teachers prefer to hold class on a dusty path outside when weather permits. The village's only clean water comes from a spring at the bottom of a steep and slippery slope. People fall and injure themselves regularly.

On Wednesday, voting machines still had not reached Bonde.

Aimee Ngombo, 33, didn't know what the machines were anyway. She's never been as far as the road, newly paved by a Chinese company, just 15 miles from Bonde. She's never held a cellphone, even though Congo produces most of the cobalt that powers cellphone batteries worldwide.

"Everything in my life is a chore," said Ngombo, while wrapping cakes of mashed cassava into broad leaves, which she then will carry down a zigzagging trail to a larger village to sell for a few cents a piece. "If an election can make one thing in my life easier, then it is a good thing."

According to polls released Friday, the man nearly half the country trusts to bring change is Martin Fayulu. He has risen from relative obscurity as an Exxon company manager to lead the Lamuka coalition, which roughly translates as "wake up."

Fayulu has the support of two regional political heavyweights, one of whom is Jean-Pierre Bemba, previously a militia leader who was recently acquitted by the International Criminal Court of accusations that he ordered his soldiers to commit war crimes.

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A second opposition coalition is led by Felix Tshisekedi, who has teamed up — to the consternation of many of his supporters — with Kabila's former campaign manager.

It wasn't until he had extended his presidency two years beyond a constitutionally mandated term limit that Kabila agreed to step down, naming former Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as his preferred successor. Shadary is not a household name in Congo, and his low profile has been read by many diplomats and analysts as purposeful — a way for Kabila to indicate that he will continue to hold the reins should Shadary win. Kabila has strongly denied those rumors.

Shadary was sanctioned in May 2017 by the European Union for ordering a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests. On Thursday night, Congo's government expelled the ambassador to the EU in retaliation for its refusal to lift sanctions.

The country's 80 million people are spread unevenly across the vast basin of the 3,000-mile-long Congo River. Much of the country is sparsely populated rainforest, navigable only by boat. The equatorial jungle is bounded to the north and south by tropical savannas, where most live as farmers.

Kinshasa's metropolitan area is a sea of single-story shacks and shops with at least 12 million residents. It is home to almost a quarter of the country's population and is Africa's third-largest city, after Cairo and Lagos.

In Congo's east, conflict drags on a quarter century after it spilled over from the Rwandan genocide. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 140 armed groups continue to operate in the region.

Kabila's inability to bring peace to the east has made him particularly unpopular there. Constant unrest has allowed an Ebola outbreak, now the second-largest ever, to spread more quickly around the cities of Beni and Butembo.

On Thursday, opposition supporters in Beni, angry that Ebola was used as a reason to disenfranchise them, ransacked a treatment center, sending 24 patients fleeing. Security forces dispersed the protesters with live rounds and tear gas.

In Mbanza-Ngungu, young Congolese people echoed that rage.

"The political class cares about us only when we misbehave — and I misbehave because I am angry," said Narcisse Divua, who is 20. His father earns just over $50 a month as a teacher, which isn't enough to send Narcisse to college. If he could, he would study to be an architect.

"I know many people, including myself, who are ready to fight. It is the only way to move on," he said.

The mood in Bonde was more circumspect. For most, the election is a faraway idea, and change via the ballot box is exciting, but hard to imagine.

A local teacher, Jean-Claude Wasugisa, explained how it had taken people in Bonde years to transition from using drums to communicate with nearby villages to instead rely on cellphones, which were more efficient, though only chargeable in a distant village where electricity is available.

"We don't really understand change, but we know it is good," said Wasugisa. "The same people can win these elections, or new ones can, it doesn't really matter. All that matters is whether they can bring change here — a road, a school, a water pump, anything."

Bearak writes for the Washington Post.

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