Key dates are coming hard and fast in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as the country heads for general elections on 23 December. On 23 June, the DRC’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) opened registration for provincial candidates wanting to contest the polls. Registration for presidential candidates starts on 25 July.
This move, although firmly on the electoral calendar since its publication at the end of 2017, has prompted concern from the Comité des Laïcs Catholiques (CLC) – one of the country’s main civil society groups. The CLC asked the African Union (AU) to become more involved in the management of the DRC’s electoral process by weighing in on several irregularities which it fears may undermine the outcome.
These include the findings by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) that 16% of registered voters cannot be identified biometrically, or don’t have a thumbprint associated with their registration. The controversy over the CENI’s introduction of voting machines also remains unresolved.
The CLC also criticised the minister of the interior’s adjudication of how political parties are eligible to participate. The organisation claims it legitimises several off-shoots from the main opposition which have been co-opted by the government.
All in all, this amounts to a significant number of technical concerns – all of which the main opposition platforms have said are deal-breakers when it comes to the credibility of the entire electoral process.
Credibility is the name of the game in the DRC elections. In the past three years, growing political opposition to what is widely perceived as President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to cling to power by any means have increasingly destabilised the country. Kabila still has not declared clearly and unequivocally that he is not running for another term.
This leaves the country and the population, as well as the region, in a state of heightened uncertainty about the government’s real intentions – not just regarding Kabila’s candidacy, but the overall tenor of the elections.
Many international and regional players are still asking themselves whether or not they should support the CENI and the electoral process. In doing so, they could risk supporting a sham election which will ultimately lack legitimacy, further perpetuating or even worsening the country’s instability.
In the past few weeks, as pressure from the region has increased, more and more diplomats and observers have come to believe that Kabila will step away from power after all and anoint a successor. This person, they believe, would remain under Kabila’s influence and protect his and his family’s interests.
For many international actors, this minimum level of constitutional compliance may have been enough for them to turn a blind eye to a lot of other irregularities. These include the glaring absence of an equal political playing field, severe human rights abuses, and the obvious elimination of political opponents such as Moïse Katumbi through manipulated legal proceedings. That key actors would play along on the condition that Kabila steps away may also be part of the Kabila clan’s calculation.
The opposition has always held the key to unlocking the real battle for credibility in these elections. If it can agree to field a unity candidate, it seems unlikely that Kabila or the ruling platform’s successor candidate would win a free and fair electoral contest.
A poll conducted by the Congo Research Group and the Bureau d’Etudes de Recherches et de Consulting International in March indicated that together Katumbi, Vital Kamerhe, Félix Tshisekedi and Jean-Pierre Bemba would get 56% of the vote. Only 17% of respondents said they would vote for someone from within the ruling coalition.
With the acquittal of former rebel leader and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has spent the past 10 years in the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prison in The Hague, this calculus becomes even more acute. Bemba was Kabila’s strongest political rival until his arrest in 2008 for crimes committed by his forces in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002.
In the first round of the 2006 presidential election, none of the candidates won a two-thirds majority, forcing a run-off which Kabila won with 58% to Bemba’s 42%. The rivalry led to an outbreak of serious violence in Kinshasa in which dozens were killed. In 2007 Congolese authorities were on the verge of charging Bemba with threatening national security when he fled to Europe.
Bemba’s arrest by the ICC has long been perceived by many in the DRC as an attempt to eliminate Kabila’s main political rival. Over time he has not lost his following and his party has remained largely intact. In the 2011 elections it won the second largest number of opposition seats in Parliament. His incarceration and subsequent acquittal on appeal have burnished his image as a political martyr.
Bemba hasn’t yet spoken out about whether he intends to return to politics and contest the presidency. Nor do we know whether he’d agree to run as a unity candidate or allow Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, or Katumbi, to be the presidential candidate on a common platform.
The government has said there are no legal proceedings against him and have even stated that he should get a diplomatic passport to allow him to travel (he retains his status as senator for life). But Bemba is a threat and the Kabila clan could still try to block his participation in the election.
If he and the others do agree to form a united front, it will be more important than ever that the electoral process be free and fair, and that the outcome be seen as credible. A process lacking credibility, and from which a candidate from the ruling party wins, will almost guarantee greater instability in the country, and the region.
Stephanie Wolters, Head, Peace and Security Research Programme, ISS Pretoria
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