Elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: How Democratic?

An analysis of the upcoming general election in November.

On November 28, legislative and presidential elections are to be held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This is the second time in five years that the Congolese people will freely vote since the DRC gained independence from Belgium 51 years ago. Since its independence, the country went through thirty-two years of absolute dictatorial rule under Mobutu Sese Seko, then plunged into multi-pronged internal conflicts that have since been dubbed Africa’s World War, and whose pangs are still reverberating to dateswaths of territories in eastern and northern Congo are ungovernable as armed militias from Rwanda and Uganda continue to perpetrate atrocities on civilian populations — most publicized have been the devastating gang rapes and mutilations of women.

These wars have drawn armed forces from half a dozen African countries into the DRC and have led to , directly or indirectly, the deaths of five million Congolese citizens. The gravity of this situation warranted the intervention of the international community and led to the deployment of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping forces. A settlement of the conflict was brokered, whereby the warring factions’ armed militias would integrate and be forged into the national army. Their movements morphed into political parties — with erstwhile warlords as well as civil society representatives forming a transitional government in 2003 with a bicameral legislature comprising 500-member National Assembly and a 108-member Senate.

The transitional government had a bizarre arrangement, comprising the incumbent Joseph Kabila as president and four vice-presidents (two former warlords, one representative of the civil society, and one representative of the central government). The transitional government was therefore known as “1 + 4.”

The first test of this post-conflict peace project was a new constitution adopted upon a referendum in 2005. After passage, it became the fundamental law of the land in early 2006. One political party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) of the veteran anti-Mobutu oppositionist Etienne Tshisekedi, boycotted the processjust as it did the general elections that followed in July 2006.

The second test of the peace project was the legislative and presidential elections. In the first round of those elections, there were thirty-two presidential candidates and more than 9,000 aspirants vying to fill 500 seats in the National Assembly. Constitutionally, the 108 senators were to be indirectly elected by provincial assemblies. Two candidates emerged after the first round: the incumbent Joseph Kabila—whose party, the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et le Développement (PPRD), had contracted an alliance with several political parties to create the platform called Alliance de la Majorité Présidentielle (AMP), and erstwhile warlord and one of the transitional presidents, Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the militia turned political party, the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC), which also had its allies gathered in a political cartel called Union pour la Nation (UN).

Bemba contested the results of both rounds of these elections, and as he had a small force for his protection in the capital, his men and Kabila’s Presidential Guard clashed twice in the Congolese capital—once after each round of the election.In the second clash between the forces of the two presidential contenders, the Presidential Guard routed their opponents, forcing Bemba to seek refuge in the compound of the South African embassy, which ultimately obtained from the government a safe passage to Europe for the former Vice-President, who, by then, had also been elected senator by the provincial assembly of his stronghold of Kinshasa. While in Europe, Bemba was arrested in Belgium and transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague to face trial on charges of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities committed by his rebel troops he had loaned to the then-president of the Central African Republic (CAR) Ange Patassé to put down a coup attempt in that neighboring country. Bemba is still on trial and in custody at the ICC.    

Kabila won the second round of the 2006 presidential election with 58% of the vote, whereas Bemba obtained 42%. However, the results of these elections showed that the country was divided into two linguistic blocs: the western Lingala-speaking provinces voting en masse for Bemba, and the eastern Swahili-speaking provinces casting their lot for the incumbent, a Swahili-speaker and whose late father, the assassinated president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, hailed from the mining province of Katanga. Incidentally, Katangans see Joseph Kabila as one of their own, though he grew up in Tanzania and only came to the DRC as a rebel officer alongside the Rwandan-backed revolutionaries.

The context in the general elections of this year is dramatically different. Earlier this year, the National Assembly, dominated by the incumbent’s political cartel and amid the outcry of opposition deputies who boycotted the move, voted to change a few provisions in the constitution, including scrapping the requirement of two rounds in the presidential election in the event that none of the two candidates achieved 50% plus 1 vote in the first round.

This constitutional amendment puts immense pressure on the rival opposition to rally around one candidate so as to get a realistic chance at staking a claim on the presidency, “lest the increasingly unpopular Kabila wins the 2011 race by default,” as is alleged in a US Kinshasa Embassy cable created on January 20, 2010, and recently released by WikiLeaks.

As it turns out, the opposition is as divided as ever—though, at first blush, it appears that it was dealt a good hand in this electoral cycle. Tshisekedi has chosen to participate in the process this time around and, at age 78, still shows skills in mobilizing crowds of activists and sympathizers. There is also new blood injected into the opposition that could prove quite a challenge for the incumbent. Among the emerging leaders is Vital Kamerhe, the incumbent’s own 2006 campaign manager and former speaker of the National Assembly, who had run afoul of his former boss for publicly questioning the wisdom of the president in striking a deal with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame that entailed Rwandan-Congolese joint military operations in eastern Congo to root out Rwandan terrorists of the FDLR (Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Rwanda).

These joint military operations failed to yield the expected results. The FDLR elements still roam around in some pockets of eastern Congo. Besides, there is an ongoing snag in the reform of the security sector. The integration into the national army of formerly Rwandan-backed rebels and other militias known as “Mai-Mai” (who had resisted Rwandan occupation during ‘Africa’s World War’) is only nominal: these armed groups keep their chain of command intact and stay on the territory previously controlled by them. What’s more, donning the national army fatigues, these ex-militiamen continue to perpetrate atrocities in the region—their crimes matching in savagery those of the FDLR: mass rapes, looting of villages, and wanton massacres. In the northern province of Orientale, by the border with the Republic of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, raids on villages by elements of the Ugandan vicious militia, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), continue unabated. This situation of insecurity creates a mockery of the slogan: “crafter of peace,” on which the incumbent ran in 2006.  

This deleterious security situation is doubly worrisome to Kabila for two reasons. First, the endemic insecurity in the eastern region has dented the popularity he once enjoyed in his stronghold, which now has growing number of disgruntled constituents. Second, this state of affairs plays right into the hands of Kamerhe, who is from the eastern province of South Kivu.

Kamerhe has turned into a tough foe, with name recognition and alliances he has succeeded in forging nationwide, including in the restive southwestern province of Bas-Congo, with powerful leaders such as MP Ne Muanda Nsemi, head of the banned cargo-cult Bundu dia Mayala.

Another presidential contender of note to emerge is the Senate president, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, a three-time Prime Minister of Mobutu, a qualification that makes his appeal to voters doubtful.

The only option for the opposition would be to rally around the one leader who has a clear chance of defeating the incumbent, either Tshisekedi or Kamerhe. But nothing remotely close to this scenario is happening.

One issue is that the division within the opposition has deepened lately, as Tshisekedi has ratched up talks with the 11 other opposition presidential candidates vying to unseat Kabila. He even recently visited Bemba for the second time at the Scheveningen Prison Complex in the Netherlands in an attempt to secure the backing of the MLC in the upcoming presidential elections.

The opposition has further diluted its strength, considering it comprises a staggering number of 417 non-aligned registered political parties with more than 19,000 MP candidates. Kabila’s party PPRD, by contrast, has allied itself with more than 200 parties.

The real concern in the run-up to the November elections is violence, which has already flared up on several occasions in the confrontations pitting UDPS supporters against PPRD party members, or when riot police have violently repressed UDPS demonstrators. Additionally, UDPS doubts the autonomy of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) from the ruling party. Some fear that these elements turn the country into a powder keg that might explode after the election in the event that Kabila is reelected.

UDPS and other opposition parties affiliated with it are requiring access to CENI’s central server as well as an audit of the electoral registers. CENI has accepted this demand from the opposition but on condition that the ruling majority also participate, which the latter adamantly refuses, accusing UDPS and its allies of engaging in maneuvers to derail the electoral process. Besides, CENI discovered that there were more than 100,000 duplicate voters’ registrations — some due to technical glitches and others due to attempted electoral fraud . CENI vowed to drag those responsible to court. Some independent analysts actually estimate that the number of these duplicate voters might be as high as 700,000. UDPS sees this as a sure sign that a massive vote rigging scheme is in the offing.

The UN stabilization mission in the DRC, which is helping in the logistics of the elections by deploying electoral kits countrywide and alongside Western diplomatic missions in Kinshasa, is strongly urging political parties to carry out peaceful electoral campaigns and to accept the results of the ballot box. Whether this advice will be heeded or not remains to be seen.

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