Elections in the Congo: What’s Different This Time?

In 2006, the Democratic Republic of Congo had its first elections in 40 years as part of a UN-supported transition after the civil war. The UN mission at the time, MONUC, played an enormously important logistical and supportive role in the 2006 elections.

Five years later, the DRC is getting geared up for the next set of legislative and presidential elections.  I’ve read in a number of election analyses (here, for example) that one of the things that makes this election different from the previous one is that the Congolese state is running the show this time. After a lot of searching, however, I’ve been unable to clarify exactly what that means. In 2006, the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), a transitional government body established with the Draft Constitution of the Transition of 2002 and article 211 of the Constitution of 2005, was in charge of “the organization of the electoral process, including voter registration, the maintenance of voters’ rolls, voting operations, vote counting, the announcement of provisional results and the conduct of referendums.” It was composed of representatives of the government, the political opposition, and parties to the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, which included rebel groups as well as civil society organizations.

It’s possible that what is meant by the Congolese state driving the process this time is that CEI was a transitional body established as a result of an internationally-facilitated peace process, while the current Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) is the more permanent body set up by the state. The neutrality of CENI has been called into question by some Congolese, and has come under some fire for not integrating civil society organizations as independent members like CEI did.

According to Zukiswa Zimela of IPS Africa, “The board of the electoral commission consists of four representatives from the governing party and three from the opposition.” This could be compared with the CEI, which according to the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, consisted of “21 members, 3 drawn from each Component (the Government, the Political Opposition, the RDC and the MLC) and two each from the remaining Entities that are party to the Inter-Congolese Dialogue; it was chaired by a representative of Civil Society. At least one representative from each component and entity had to be a woman.”

In addition to the political neutrality of CENI being questioned, opposition leaders and international observers are worried about CENI’s capacity and that logistical problems will lead to the postponement of elections. Some have expressed concern that delays will radicalize Kabila’s opponents and be seen as an intentional manipulation of the process.

On the other hand, a report from earlier this year by the International Crisis Group – while acknowledging that a delayed or postponed election could have serious consequences – also points out that a botched election carried out on time could be just as problematic. The report states that “The only way out of this Catch-22 situation is to both speed up preparations and negotiate a contingency electoral calendar and political agreement to manage an almost certainly necessary transition period.” The same report stresses the need for concerted UN support, as this time around, “the international community is not in charge, as in effect it was the first time, in 2006.”

MONUSCO is mandated to provide support for the elections and the European Union is deploying an Election Observation Mission; yet there is still a perception, at least among some, that “just five short years after peace officially returned to Congo, the international community has turned its back on democracy. Many fear that international actors are choosing continuity over peace,” according to a columnist on AllAfrica.com.

There are some worrying signs, such as increased tension between the ruling PPRD and the main opposition group, the UDPS. Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa provides a nice summary of some shockingly inciteful statements made by the UDPS leader, but also puts them into the context of government harassment and censorship of the party. Many observers have also noted the increasing willingness of police to use violence to contain protests, and, again as opined on AllAfrica.com, that “the dis-engagement of international actors stand in stark contrast to the 2006, which were heavily monitored and supported.”

All of this is cause for concern, but a change in the electoral law in January of this year is especially significant: the elimination of the second round of elections in the event no one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. With eleven presidential hopefuls, and no sign of opposition parties uniting behind one candidate, the incumbent, President Kabila, has a decisive advantage – he only needs to secure just over one eleventh of the vote in order to win the election. Even if all the aforementioned challenges were overcome, and free and fair elections were held, and international support suddenly accelerated to match that of 2006 – a Kabila win without a second round is likely to suffer from lack of legitimacy and possibly violent political anger in response. And the matter is only exacerbated by the perception that CENI is incapable of being neutral or handling the logistical aspects of the election in the first place.