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Gambling on Elections: Congo’s Presidential Problem

(This article was originaly published in The Mantle)

By Emily Cody

Originally scheduled to take place on 28 November, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s legislative and executive elections bled into the 30th following logistical issues in delivering ballots, widespread irregularities, and long lines on the first day of polling. With over 30 million voters, thousands of polling stations, and lack of basic infrastructure, DRC’s elections were a logistical nightmare.

The elections are DRC’s second since independence in 1960. DRC’s first elections, in 2006, promoted Joseph Kabila to the presidency; Kabila was already in power as the result of a transitional government established by the 2002 Global All Inclusive Peace Agreement which brought a formal end to the Second Congo War. On 29 November, four opposition candidates contesting for President denounced the polling over allegations of fraud. Results are due to be announced 6 December (today) for the Presidency and 13 January for the legislature.

Whereas the 2006 elections were seen as a stepping stone towards democratization after the Second Congo War, the 2011 elections are largely viewed by the international community as a platform for democractic consolidation. Congo’s government produces almost no public goods or services, so elections and international recognition are amongst its few bases for legitimacy. But this view may be premature: in the wake of the 2006 elections, violent clashes took place in the capital, Kinshasa, and Kabila’s government has been accused of violence and intimidation against political opponents. Between November 2010 and September 2011, a UN report documented 188 violations linked to the electoral process, including acts of intimidation, threats, incitement, and violence.  Human Rights Watch reported that on 26 November, the last day of the electoral campaign, soldiers fired into a crowd of supporters of the opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), killing 12 and wounding 41. Police suspended all political demonstrations. DRC’s elections at the very worst could reignite conflict if an Ivory Coast type standoff occurs, plunging the country back into war with a strong secessionist push in the South where most of the economy is based.

Below is a brief summary of some of the main contested issues in the electoral process and what’s at stake.

Consolidating Development and State-Building

DRC faces tremendous obstacles to development and state-building following the devastating “first African World War” from 1998 – 2003 and continuing insecurity in the Eastern provinces. Though all-out war in DRC has ended, the central state is fragile and viewed as “dying but not yet dead”. The fragility of the state has been buttressed by the international community, who has undertaken much of the central governments’ responsibilities. As a result, the government has become more accountable to international actors rather than their constituents. While development assistance is commendable in many aspects, it’s also been implemented haphazardly and with a lack of common vision.

At the crux of this year’s elections are whether life has improved in Kabila’s tenure since 2006 and post-conflict. Kabila’s sweeping campaign promises are largely seen as having created false hopes in order to win votes and the support of the international community. In 2006, Kabila ran on an ambitious cinq chantiers (five pillars) developmental platform to secure infrastructure, health and education, water and electricity, and housing and employment. Some Congolese have sarcastically referred to their personal sixième chantier(sixth pillar), the struggle to survive.

Despite economic recovery in 2010, DRC came in last out of 187 countries in the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index. This is increasingly profound in the East; despite Kabila coming from South Kivu and winning overwhelmingly in the Kivus in 2006, he is largely seen as not having brought development and being incapable of ending insecurity. One of Kabila’s main opponents, Vital Kamerhe, has become increasingly popular in the region. Also a native and a former ally of Kabila, Kamerhe infamously resigned his position as president of the National Assembly in 2009 after a deal was made between Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame and Kabila authorizing the deployment of Rwandan troops into Eastern DRC without parliamentary approval. The operation eventually led to the capture of CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda.

Under Kabila, the CNDP was integrated into the Congolese National Army in January 2009, largely becoming an army within an army. Negotiations also took place with the Rwandan FDLR in 2011. These initiatives were aimed at increasing stability, but have instead led to growing disintegration as Kabila tried to do too many things at once. It’s unclear whether any opposition leader would have had the same impact in negotiations with Kagame. The offensive also perpetuated rumours amongst Western Congolese and in Kinshasa, where he has very low levels of support, that Kabila is in fact of Rwandan descent.

The Electoral Process, Regional Disparities, and the Opposition

The sheer size of DRC and lack of infrastructure has led to DRC largely being governed under a series of alliances with national, provincial, and local leaders. Some have suggested that elections at local levels will be more meaningful to Congolese than the Presidential ones. To consolidate power, Kabila has the difficult task of managing regional disparities and appealing to a wide range of voters.

In January 2011, Kabila amended the electoral procedures of the Constitution so that candidates are elected on a single round of voting where the candidate with the highest percentage of votes wins. This revision was likely possible due to the international community’s preoccupation at the time with Ivory Coast and the Sudanese referendum. Previously, elections were contested in two rounds, where if a candidate failed to win a majority, there would be a run-off between the top two candidates. This was the case in 2006 between Kabila and his opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba. Two rounds also gives opposition members time to mobilize and gain support in the first round of voting. The body responsible for electoral administration, the CENI, is also widely perceived to be state-affiliated, and its head, Daniel Ngoy Mulundu, is a former member of Kabila’s international delegation. Kabila has also been accused of mobilizing state resources and funding in his campaigning.

The process of constitutional revision could actually have had the effect of diminishing Kabila’s prospects had the opposition united around a single candidate. They did not. Failure to unite led to diminishing policy platforms, and many campaigning strategies appear to be predicated on regional and ethnic origins. Any perception by the public that elections are not free and fair has the potential to make the already frustrated public even more vulnerable to political recuperation. DRC’s opposition remains weak and underfunded, but also retains enormous potential to incite violence.

Incitement, Voting Irregularities, and Rumours

In early September, Kabila’s main opponent, veteran opposition politician Etienne Tshisekedi claimed that he was the rightful current president of the DRC, and called on his supporters to break into prisons to release political detainees and UDPS supporters. The talk, originally intended for his supporters only, was broadcast later by Radio Lisanga TV. The government immediately cut off Lisanga’s signal. The international community strongly condemned Tshisekedi’s remarks. CENI requested that ICC observers be sent to Kinshasa to deter violence.

Considered a prickly character by the international community, Tshisekedi was largely ignored by the international media until his comments. Up until that point, the international community had largely ignored violence against members of the opposition and not engaged with them, despite Tshisekedi being one of the few who speak to people’s frustrations. One voter in Kinshasa stated “this is our version of the Arab uprising…we want him (the incumbent) out. This country is rich in resources, but we have turned into world spectators. This frustration has lasted too long”.

Massive problems have plagued the voting process, including hundreds of thousands of registered voters finding their names missing, polling stations lacking sufficient numbers of ballots, and voters having little guidance on where to vote. There have also been several allegations of fraud. In Kananga, a strongold of Tshiseki, voters attacked and burnt down several polling stations in the belief that ballots had been stuffed. At least four of the opposition candidates called for the vote to be annulled, with Tshisekedi admitting irregularities but saying he was still conducting his own investigation. The UPDS later stated that based upon ballot results compiled by the party, they have won.

While electoral observers from the African Union, European Union, and US-based Carter Center all agree that there were irregularities with the vote, the question is now whether these irregularities were part of systematic fraud or logistical. Vote tallying amongst Congolese has begun, with many of the numbers gathered by SMS text messages compiled and then re-texted as provincial or regional results. Kabila’s term ends on 5 December, so if results are not announced on time his rule has the potential to be seen as unconstitutional.

The International Community and Ownership

In Congo Masqueradelongtime DRC analyst Theodore Trefon quotes Patrick Chabal and J.P. Daloz that: 

“present transitions are unable to change the nature of politics in Africa. The holding of regular multiparty elections, usually equated with ‘democratization’ has come about largely because of outside pressure, but the realities on the ground are that, more often than not, it is democracy that has been adapted to the logic and rigors of clientelism, and not, as so often proclaimed, the reverse”.

In short, elections may decrease space for genuine political participation by legitimizing candidates who make sweeping campaign promises but do not implement then, and worse, restrict space for civil and political rights.

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Emily Cody is a  researcher in political science and a program assistant at the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies in Uganda, a Sudanese human rights organization. 

[Photo courtesy of Tomas]

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