KINSHASA, Congo — Congo’s election to replace Joseph Kabila, who has been president for nearly 18 years, will be delayed by a week despite already being more than two years behind schedule, according to the head of the country’s electoral commission.

Corneille Nangaa told reporters that Sunday’s long-promised vote could not be held on time because of numerous problems, including a fire that incinerated thousands of voting machines and millions of ballots last week and an intensifying Ebola outbreak in the country’s restive east. He said campaigning would still end Friday as planned.

Kabila’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, is facing off primarily against two other candidates — Felix Tshisekedi, the son of Congo’s veteran opposition leader who died last year, and Martin Fayulu, a former ExxonMobil executive backed by two political heavyweights who were barred from candidacy.

Before the Dec. 23 presidential election was postponed, thousands of voting machines were destroyed in a fire at a warehouse in Congo's capital. (Reuters)

Kabila ran up against his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in 2016, but elections scheduled for that year were postponed because of instability around the country.

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Kabila expressed certainty that the election would be held on time.

The lead-up to the election has already been marred by widespread political violence and a ban on campaigning in the capital, Kinshasa. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces killed at least seven opposition supporters, wounded more than 50 people and arbitrarily detained scores of others last week.

The delay raises the risk of violent opposition protests. A spokesman for Fayulu’s running-mate and former warlord, Jean-Pierre Bemba, expressed anger toward the election commissioner. 

“Nangaa, that windbag filled with arrogance, has reached a new level of incompetence,” said Fidele Babala. “In the interest of dignity he should resign, but I'm not sure he has dignity.”

On Wednesday, Fayulu’s coalition issued a statement saying authorities “had ample time to prepare credible and peaceful elections.”

“They have not done so . . . so we are discovering their real objective: remain in power to pillage the country and kill the Congolese population which deeply hopes for a change,” it added.

Fayulu and Tshisekedi announced plans for news conferences on Friday morning, as the hours wound down for the campaign period. 

Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country by area, and its more than 80 million people have not experienced a peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. The country has been a source of regional instability for decades and more than 100 armed groups operate through its territory.

Congo also produces the majority of the world’s cobalt, a mineral that is an essential component in the batteries used in cellphones and electric automobiles.

Carrying out any election in Congo requires overcoming massive logistical hurdles. But the upcoming election is being held at the local, legislative and presidential levels in a country with more than 600 political parties. An Ebola outbreak in conflict-stricken North Kivu and Ituri provinces has now infected more than 500 people and presents a unique challenge to hygiene with the election being conducted on touch-screen voting machines. 

More than 100,000 voting machines were purchased from a South Korean company to streamline the voting process, but they have proved controversial, and more than 7,000 were destroyed in last week’s fire. More than 80 percent of the machines and nearly all the ballots intended for use in Kinshasa were lost. The government and opposition have traded blame for the fire.