As this vast Central African nation prepares for elections this week, civilians have been attacked for wearing T-shirts of opposition candidates. Police loyal to President Joseph Kabila have suppressed demonstrations, often violently.

At the same time, the leading opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, has already declared himself president, and his supporters have vowed to take to the streets if he doesn’t win.

“We will revolt,” declared Bernard Kayembe, 28, standing with scores of young people outside Tshisekedi’s campaign headquarters. “It will be like Tunisia. We will start a revolution and claim our rights.”

The presidential and parliamentary contests scheduled for Monday will be only the second elections since Congo gained independence in 1960, after years of instability driven by Cold War rivalry, dictatorship and war. The balloting represents a progress report of sorts for the United States and the international community, which have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to stabilize a country that holds some of the greatest reserves of mineral wealth in the world.

But human rights groups and election observers are voicing concerns that the elections are being held under conditions that are far from free and fair, with extensive reports of violence and hate speech. And the elections have become a showcase for impunity and a lack of justice; some candidates are wanted for atrocities such as ordering mass rapes.

In a report this month, the United Nations warned that “the continued repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the pre-electoral period may increase the likelihood of individuals and political parties resorting to violent means, endanger the democratic process and lead to post-electoral violence.”

On the eve of the vote, some uncertainty remains about whether elections can be held on time. U.N. peacekeepers were airlifting balloting materials, seeking to reach some 60,000 polling stations across a nation that is two-thirds the size of Western Europe. The flurry of last-minute preparations has raised the prospect that the vote could be marred by allegations of irregularities.

There are 11 presidential candidates; as many as 18,500 candidates for parliament will compete for 500 seats. An estimated 32 million Congolese are eligible to vote.

With the army, police and judicial system on his side, Kabila is widely expected to win — and to overcome any challenge to the result. The opposition is divided, refusing to unite and field a single candidate against Kabila, whose campaign is clearly the best funded. Posters of a beaming Kabila are ubiquitous around the capital, and he has hired popular Congolese musicians to write songs glorifying him.

Kabila’s loyalists have undertaken a campaign of intimidation to secure a victory. U.N. investigators have documented 188 violations related to the electoral process. The national police and intelligence services have perpetrated most of those abuses, the world body noted in its report.

Andre Alain Atundo Longo, a spokesman for Kabila, denied the allegations and contended that the opposition, especially Tshisekedi’s party, is inciting violence.

Perpetually unstable

The former Belgian colony has been in a state of perpetual instability ever since civil war erupted after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Kabila’s father, Laurent, led a rebel force that ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko three years later, and he changed the name of the nation from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But the fighting continued, ushering in a conflict that was dubbed Africa’s First World War. It drew armies from a half-dozen nations vying for Congo’s mineral wealth and caused the deaths of an estimated 5 million people, mostly from disease and starvation. Today, the United Nations has 19,000 peacekeepers here, the largest such force in the world.

Following his father’s assassination in 2001, Joseph Kabila became president. In 2006, he won the country’s historic U.N.-run elections.

Under his leadership, though, Congo has foundered. Official corruption and poverty are as pervasive as ever. The government is unable to provide adequate education or health services. A recent report on human development indicators by the United Nations Development Fund placed Congo at the bottom of a list of 187 nations surveyed.

“I haven’t been paid my salary since 2007,” said Jean Kalombo, a civil servant in the Ministry of Mines. “We are suffering.”

Longo argued that there has been progress under Kabila, such as improvements in infrastructure. But he added that the government did not have adequate resources to address all the needs of the Congolese people.

Warlords on the ballot

Much of the country’s eastern provinces are still battlegrounds, where militias and rebels brutally target civilians, using tactics such as mass rapes and the burning of entire villages in a quest to gain control of mines and other forms of wealth. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Congolese have fled their homes.

Some of those warlords are running for parliament. They include Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, accused of ordering the rapes of hundreds of women, men, girls and boys last year in Walikale, a remote area of North Kivu province in eastern Congo.

“Congolese authorities should be arresting Sheka for mass rape whether he is running for office or not,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to arrest someone who is out publicly campaigning for votes sends a message that even the most egregious crimes will go unpunished.”

Many opposition politicians allege that the electoral commission — known as CENI — is biased toward Kabila. That has spurred Tshisekedi to urge his supporters to break into jails to free detained supporters. His advisers say that he refused to sign a memorandum of good conduct, which all candidates have been asked to endorse, so he can apply pressure to ensure a free and transparent vote.

Warned Jean Keba, director for victims protection at the Kinshasa-based African Association for the Defense of Human Rights, “If CENI does not address the claims of the opposition, there will be a violent reaction by the opposition if Kabila wins.”