By Stanis Bujakera
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Election monitors from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said on Wednesday that Democratic Republic of Congo's presidential election "went relatively well" despite chaotic scenes that prevented many from voting.
The SADC's qualified endorsement countered allegations by opposition candidates that the Dec. 30 vote was marred by widespread irregularities and criticism by a senior U.S. lawmaker that the election was "neither free nor fair".
Approval of the election's results by SADC powers like South Africa and Angola will be critical for the legitimacy of the administration of the next president, who will succeed veteran incumbent Joseph Kabila on Jan. 18.
Angola and South Africa have been important allies of Kabila over the years, but relations were strained by his refusal to step down when his mandate officially expired in 2016.
Pre-election polling showed Kabila's preferred candidate, ex-interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, trailing the main opposition candidates, Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi, but both sides say they expect to win. Provisional results are expected on Jan. 6, with the final outcome on Jan. 15.
Sunday's vote is meant to lead to Congo's first democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence. But more than a million Congolese in opposition strongholds were prevented from voting due to an Ebola outbreak, local factional conflict and various logistical problems.
"Taking into account the range of challenges posed by these elections, the (mission) observed that the elections ... were relatively well-managed," the SADC mission said in a statement.
The election allowed "the majority of the Congolese population to exercise its right to vote".
The statement said that 59 percent of polling places it observed opened on time, vote counting was transparent and police securing the polls behaved professionally.
An African Union observer mission said in a separate statement on Wednesday that election day, which also included votes for national and provincial assembly members, was peaceful yet blighted by a number of logistical problems.
"The holding of these elections constitutes, in itself, a first great victory for the Congolese people," it said. "The mission strongly wishes that the results that will be declared are true to the vote of the Congolese people."
Kabila's government refused to accredit election monitors from the European Union and the U.S.-based Carter Center, which said there were widespread irregularities in the 2011 election.
Contested election results in 2006 and 2011 led to violent street protests, and a disputed outcome this time could also destabilise Congo's volatile eastern borderlands with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, where dozens of militia groups are active.
(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister and Mark Heinrich)