The Democratic Republic of Congo awaits full provisional results of historic elections on Sunday, with the polling widely expected to go to a second round in the war-ravaged central African nation.
Despite a substantial lead, results published by the country's Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) on Saturday indicated that incumbent President Joseph Kabila has failed to earn more than 50 per cent of the vote that would have guaranteed an outright win.
Figures based on 72 per cent of the ballots cast gave him 47 per cent, while his closest challenger, one of his vice-presidents and former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, was credited with 18.9 per cent.
The figures were compiled by AFP based on results from each district published by the CEI.
"It is evident today that there will be a second round," a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
A European Union election observer, Jean-Michel Dumont, said it was no longer possible for Kabila to win outright, considering which districts still had to file their results.
"A second round seems certain," he said.
Several election observers have expressed relief that a run-off would be held as an outright win for Kabila could have stoked violence, particularly in western regions and the capital Kinshasa where support for Bemba is strong.
"Tension would have been very high without a second round," the Western diplomat said.
The electoral commission is due to announce full provisional results of the July 30 poll, the country's first free multi-party ballots in 46 years which fielded 32 candidates, late on Sunday.
The definitive outcome of the presidential and parliamentary election will be announced by the Supreme Court no later than August 31 after examination of possible objections.
If results confirm that no one has won outright, the country's 25 million voters will be called back to the urns for a run-off round on October 29.
The DRC's Interior Minister Theophile Mbemba on Saturday appealed to the 32 presidential candidates to "accept the verdict of the ballot boxes" or use legal methods only to lodge an objection.
"The Congolese people has suffered so much from the throes of war. It is time to stop the destruction of this country," Mbemba said.
The parliamentary and presidential election three weeks ago were the first free multiparty polls in the former Zaire since it gained independence from Belgium 46 years ago.
It is hoped that the polls will cement a fragile transitional period that followed the country's brutal five-year war, which ended in 2003 after drawing in six foreign armies and killing more than three million people.
Kabila remains the firm favourite to become the first democratically elected president in this vast country almost the size of western Europe.
"There is a big gap between Kabila and Bemba. Kabila has a solid lead for the second round according to the available results," Dumont said.
Kabila and Bemba will try to woo supporters of the lesser candidates, notably those of veteran politician Antoine Gizenga, currently in third place with 10.7 per cent, and Nzanga Mobutu, son of the country's former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was fourth with 5.4 per cent.