The DRC’s election was a halting step towards embedding democracy

But the system remains deeply flawed, with the country’s enormous wealth controlled by a tiny elite.

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Provisional results have been announced for the 2023 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), indicating victory for incumbent Felix Tshisekedi. He sits on 73 per cent of the vote with 85 per cent of votes tallied.

His closest challenger, Moise Katumbi, is on 18 per cent. Barring a successful legal challenge, Tshisekedi’s second mandate will be confirmed when the final results are released in mid-January, making him president until 2028.

A Tshisekedi victory was widely predicted – he had the backing of some of the DRC’s political heavyweights, bringing votes from many corners of the country’s fractured electoral mosaic, and faced a divided opposition that proved unable to unite behind a single candidate.

Though Tshisekedi did not deliver fundamental change during his first term, his promise of free primary education was well received, as were efforts to renegotiate mining contracts signed under his predecessor. His militant stand against Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in the East of the country is also likely to have played well with a war-weary public.

Continuity, cynicism and political theatre

Perhaps more importantly, he offered continuity. If confirmed, Tshisekedi’s landslide should not be taken as evidence for personal popularity. It is rather a demonstration of the perverse stability of the DRC’s political system – one that runs on networked individuals more than institutions and laws.

The country’s vast wealth is funnelled into the hands of a tiny elite, meshed in a network of reciprocal relationships that transcend politics.

The country’s vast wealth is funnelled into the hands of a tiny elite, meshed in a network of reciprocal relationships that transcend politics. This elite compete for access to resources, largely leveraged through access to the state and its administrative functions – but are united by the overriding imperative of keeping the system running.

This turns much Congolese politics into theatre. Individuals start parties, campaign and promise change as a way of auditioning for entry into elite networks, or to help advance their position within them.

Political parties are often therefore little more than vehicles for individual ambition, forming mutable and opportunistic coalitions that fall apart and reshape according to their leaders’ ambition and the prevailing winds of the day.

This in part explains why there were 26 candidates for president. Though six stepped down during the campaign in favour of one of the leading candidates, opposition unity behind a single challenger proved an impossible hurdle. 

It also explains the deep cynicism about politics among the Congolese population. The DRC is a politically literate country, with a sophisticated electorate that well understands their system and its flaws. They are also often dependent on the largesse of that system, even if only crumbs remain once the elite channel resources into their own subsidiary systems of patronage.

The result is a degree of political fatalism that is surprising in such a wealthy country, where the vast majority live in deep poverty.

The result is a degree of political fatalism that is surprising in such a wealthy country, where the vast majority live in deep poverty. Turnout for the 2023 election is not yet available, but prior polling suggested that more than half the electorate did not intend to cast their vote. 

Opposition complaints

Opposition leaders have cried foul. Moise Katumbi described the process as a ‘fraud’ and called for the result to be annulled, but ruled out a legal challenge due to doubts over judicial impartiality.

Martin Fayulu, the candidate who in all likelihood won the 2018 election, only to see it handed to Tshisekedi, has also rejected the result. Alongside four other candidates – including Nobel-prize winning Dr Denis Mukwege – he was calling for a rerun before polls closed, citing disordered voting that was extended way beyond the legally mandated period.

Complaints about electoral organization have obvious merit.

Their complaints about electoral organization have obvious merit. The electoral process was extremely chaotic, with the National Episcopal Conference (CENCO) recording more than 5400 incidents at polling stations.

The Carter Centre noted serious violations at nearly a fifth of stations attended by its observers, on top of a long list of challenges, to voter registration and to the delivery of electoral materials. 

But it is impossible to say with any certainty whether there is truth in allegations of planned fraud, absent compelling evidence of systematic malpractice in vote counting or compilation. It is therefore hard to imagine the DRC’s international or regional partners adding their voices to opposition calls for annulment or an election rerun.

The churches, which were crucial in generating and focusing popular discontent in 2018, have to date said relatively little.

More importantly, there has been little reaction so far from the street. Some Fayulu supporters clashed with security forces in the capital, but the scale of the protests was nothing like what a truly angry Kinshasa could deliver. The churches, which were crucial in generating and focusing popular discontent in 2018, have to date said relatively little. 

A glass half full?

Seen in longer perspective, this election is likely to be received as another halting step on the DRC’s journey to embedding democracy.

The 2023 vote was Congo’s fourth post-conflict election, and polling took place according to the agreed timetable, in contrast to repeated delays last time.

Many had feared that key opposition figures would be excluded, notably Moise Katumbi, but all were able to stand and campaign relatively freely. The process has also, thus far, been largely peaceful.

And while voting was undoubtedly deeply flawed, this was to a certain extent inevitable given the logistical challenges of coordinating more than 75,000 polling stations in a context such as the DRC.

It can be argued that the DRC’s electoral glass is just about half-full…at least for now. But there are many more challenges to come.

So it can be argued that the DRC’s electoral glass is just about half-full, not half-empty, at least for now. But there are many more challenges to come.

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Votes were also cast for nearly 100,000 candidates split between the National Assembly, provincial assemblies and some local councillors. Control of provincial and local authorities matters much more to the daily lives of most Congolese than Kinshasa politics. 

Results at these levels are deeply unpredictable, and may trigger significant tensions; unpicking the inevitable flood of legal challenges is liable to take months if not years. And conflict in the East of the country may well flare again.

Tshisekedi, meanwhile, is now embarking on his final term in office. The heavyweights that backed him this time may well harbour presidential ambitions of their own, and will start jockeying for advantage as soon as the ink is dry on his inauguration.