DRC Free and Fair Elections: towards a democratic consolidation? – By William Townsend, Free Fair DRC
Two days after voting was supposed to have concluded in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first-ever consecutive presidential election, voting materials were still being delivered to some polling stations. Indeed, polling day was never going to be a straightforward affair in the DRC: its lack of infrastructure, the consistent failure of Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) to meet its own deadlines, and the country’s sheer size left many experts doubting whether the ballot would take place on November 28th. A last minute reprieve came in the form of additional logistical support and finance via international actors, but even with that support, the outcome of this process still lies in the balance.
It is too early to say whether these elections were truly free and fair across all of the country’s provinces. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, European Union, and United Nations have all voiced concern about allegations of fraud and isolated incidents of violence that have marred the electoral process. While the Congolese people and the international community await the conclusion of the vote tabulation and the investigation into election incidents, we should take a moment to reflect on the process so far and what lies ahead.
Conduct and Polling Day
Generally speaking, the worst fears about the potential for polling day violence did not come to pass. Yet logistical inefficiency and reports that up to 30 people have been killed gives reason for anxiety. Against this backdrop, the real test for the candidates, their supporters and the Congolese security forces will arise after the final result has been officially announced, when allegations of fraud will likely resurface and the risk of violence will reach its zenith. Indeed, the transition from disaffection to violence can quickly materialize if there is a sense of foul play. Just a few hours into the elections, Lumbumbashi, the capital of mineral rich Katanga Province and the second largest city in the Congo, saw polling stations burnt down because the names of voters who previously registered had not appeared on electoral lists. Gun-fire was also reported and vehicles carrying election materials were attacked. Nearby, boxes of ballot papers were discovered, completed in favour of the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, before voting had officially begun in this area. The governor of Katanga Province, Moise Katumbi, has declared his support for Kabila, but there is speculation that Kabila has lost a good deal of popular backing in this former fiefdom since the 2006 elections. This makes Katanga an important province for him and a potential ignition switch for the Congo.
Many other areas affected by violence were opposition strongholds. In Kinshasa – where opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi has a strong base of support – clashes broke out the weekend before the vote, leading to election officials banning campaigning activities. Fears of further violence have prompted some polling stations to remove signs displaying provisional results.
These hindrances notwithstanding, the sense of excitement and anticipation surrounding the elections is palpable. Turnout is predicted to be high and anecdotes of elderly Congolese men, and women with children who had all walked for miles and waited for hours to vote in the warm, wet capital, Kinshasa, have been regularly reported. The UK should nurture this domestic engagement with the democratic process, particularly ahead of the provincial and local elections in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Indeed, Britain is set to send nearly £800 million in aid to the DRC up until 2015, and therefore has a responsibility to ensure that the money is used in a way that fosters the development of an accountable and truly democratic government. In a country where there is little in the way of a social contract between the government and the people, these elections represent a rare opportunity to turn the tide. The international community needs to work alongside the Congolese people in demanding and verifying that the elections are as transparent and credible as possible.
Aftermath and Implications
It has been said that novices talk about strategy whilst professionals talk about logistics. Had detailed planning for these elections been conducted over years, rather than months, it is possible that much of the tension and violence witnessed over the past few days could have been averted. It seems every day there are new revelations about how unprepared the election authorities were to conduct these polls. With voting over, the ballot boxes are being moved to compilation centres, (some of which were still being constructed after voting had finished), for counting. Circumstances such as these have led the Carter Centre to conclude that preparations have been “inadequate”.
The Supreme Court will handle any disputes surrounding transparency and fraud. However, opposition members have raised concerns that, as the President appoints the Court’s members, any contestation will be prejudiced in favour of Kabila. The fact that 18 new judges were proposed just prior to the campaign is seen as further evidence of the court’s potential bias. Whether or not any accusations of fraud are ultimately proven is almost beside the point. If the election result is not accepted as credible, there are widespread concerns that people will turn to the streets rather than the courts. Unlike the 2006 poll, the security forces will not be overseen by the UN mission, and their ability to maintain the peace and control protests using non-lethal means is under question. As this situation continues to unfold, it is critical that the international community continues to take an active role in the process, helping to ensure that these elections are a step toward a stable and accountable state, rather than a step back toward the violence and instability that have plagued Congo’s past.
Free Fair DRC is a non-partisan organisation active in the UK, US, Brussels and the DRC, which has been working to ensure open and transparent elections in the Congo.