Is DRC heading for another chaotic election?

A surge in violence in eastern DRC adds to the many question marks over December’s presidential poll.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is heading for presidential elections in less than seven weeks, and again seems ill-prepared. Will it be another fiasco like 2018, where the official outcome appeared to bear little resemblance to reality?

The Independent National Electoral Commission, known by its French acronym CENI,  has officially announced 20 December as election day – with legislative and local polls to follow next year. But there’s some uncertainty about whether it will actually happen then. CENI President Denis Kadima has suggested he’s not being paid enough for it.

And the continuing instability in the east could disenfranchise over a million voters, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said this week. Other problems include government repression of opposition protests. On 30 August, Republican Guard troops massacred over 50 civilians preparing to protest against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Goma, capital of the eastern North Kivu province.

President Félix Tshisekedi, who came to power controversially – because of the widespread view that he had lost the 2018 elections to Martin Fayulu – will seek a second term against about 23 other candidates, including Fayulu. Other strong challengers are former Katanga province governor and wealthy businessman Moïse Katumbi, former prime minister Adolphe Muzito, Nobel Peace Prize-winning gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, and former cabinet minister Delly Sessanga.

Katumbi was forced out of the 2018 election by spurious legal manoeuvres, which he is facing again. This week the Constitutional Court dismissed an application by another presidential candidate to have Katumbi disqualified from the poll on grounds that he had dual nationality. His father was Italian. Despite winning the case, Katumbi must still be officially vetted by CENI, along with other aspirant candidates, on 18 November when the election campaign officially starts.

The opposition and many observers regard CENI as biased in favour of the incumbent

The opposition and many observers regard CENI as biased in favour of the incumbent, partly because Kadima is close to Tshisekedi, hailing from his home town, political party and ethnic group, says Fayulu.

This week six strong presidential candidates including Fayulu, Mukwege and Katumbi issued a joint statement promising to work together to prevent electoral fraud and demanding urgent measures from CENI for the same. These include more transparency in publishing voters rolls and mapping voting stations so the opposition can canvass for support and properly deploy its party agents and observers.

In a country where polling is scarce or non-existent, it’s hard to even guess who might win were the election free and fair. In 2018, CENI gave Tshisekedi victory with 38.56% of the vote, narrowly edging out Fayulu with 34.82% and easily beating Emmanuel Shadary, the official candidate of outgoing president Joseph Kabila’s party, with 23.83%.

But most independent observers, including the Catholic Church, believed Fayulu – a strong opposition coalition candidate – won by a landslide. They believed Kabila, realising he couldn’t credibly claim victory for the badly beaten Shadary, struck a deal with Tshisekedi to anoint him as president as long as the two could govern the country jointly.

This election is also impossible to call. A GeoPoll Socio-Political Barometer survey during the second quarter of 2023 found considerable dissatisfaction among voters about governance under Tshisekedi. They gave him a satisfaction rating below 50%. Despite this, the survey indicated he would win a second term – partly because he was perceived to be improving (e.g. through his free education initiative) and partly because the opposition was seen as fragmented and unlikely to challenge Tshisekedi’s re-election.

A SADC mission would struggle to suppress east DRC’s rebel groups in time to enfranchise a million voters

Jacques Mukena, Senior Governance Researcher at Ebuteli Institute, told ISS Today that given the huge advantages of incumbency – with or without rigging – Tshisekedi had to be considered the front runner. He was strengthened by alliances with politicians like Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo. Mukena thought Katumbi was probably the strongest opposition candidate, followed by Mukwege and Fayulu.

‘The biggest question is whether the opposition can unite behind a single candidate if they want to have a chance,’ he said. But he doubted any of the strong opposition candidates would stand back. He also noted that Kabila hadn’t yet backed any candidate, and his endorsement could be influential.

Mukena doesn’t expect the election to be completely free and fair, but felt Tshisekedi and CENI would be aware that they would be under closer scrutiny than in 2018 because more local and international observers would be watching. And because Sessanga had already declared he would take his cue from the Catholic Church’s opinion of who won the elections, not CENI’s.

Fayulu is unequivocal. He told ISS Today: ‘The electoral commission [is preparing a chaotic] but not a free, fair and transparent election. As of today, nobody knows if the election will take place on 20 December. Tshisekedi cannot win the election because he failed in all areas: social, security, corruption, tribalism … he is not capable. His only chance is a fraudulent election that he has told CENI to cook.’

Fayulu agreed it would be difficult to organise elections in many areas of North Kivu and Ituri provinces because of the violence, but couldn’t say how that might affect the different candidates’ chances. He was dismissive of the poll that suggested Tshisekedi could win, saying polling was unreliable in the DRC. He said the more reliable index was turnout and enthusiasm at election rallies, which have been high for him.

The variables on the outcome of the election in this complex country are immense

The ICG suggested in this week’s report that the international community should encourage all participants to settle election disputes peacefully and be ready to mediate if needed.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has proposed sending a regional intervention force into eastern DRC to try to stabilise the area ‘to enable Congolese to exercise their constitutional right to vote,’ Executive Secretary Elias Magosi said this week.

But SADC has arrived late to the party. The SADC Mission in the DRC was first proposed in May and was meant to go in by September. But this week SADC held a virtual summit to resolve outstanding obstacles, apparently mostly concerning financing. The summit was adjourned until 4 November.

But it’s hard to imagine the mission could go in and suppress all of eastern DRC’s many armed rebel groups in time to enfranchise those million or so voters. Perhaps that’s another reason why the poll could be postponed.

With 43.9 million Congolese registered to vote – the variables on the outcome of the election in this complex country are immense.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Reuters

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