Presidential and national assembly elections will take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on November 28: a vast country with almost no transport infrastructure, weak administrative capacity and poor popular understanding of a complex electoral system, made more acute by the vast number of candidates that have put themselves forward for the National Assembly – more than 18,000 for 500 seats – and the legacy of nearly 20 years of violence.
But 2006 demonstrated that successful elections are possible in the DRC, with intensive international support in logistics, voter education and security. Importantly, the 2006 presidential candidates were also relatively well matched in terms of campaign finance and military capacity, thus unable to systematically prejudice the process. The result, a narrow second round victory for Joseph Kabila, was generally accepted as indicative of the will of the people.
The situation in 2011 is very different, notably in the muted level of international attention, and significantly decreased financial and logistical support. In part this is because the DRC has, rightly or wrongly, moved off the red-list of imminent conflict risks in the eyes of many international observers; even the volatile East has reached an uneasy equilibrium, despite massive continuing human rights violations. But it is also linked to the fact that, in contrast to 2006, the political playing field is anything but level today. Kabila has a firm grip on all the most important levers of the state.
The relative lack of international attention is perhaps indicative of a sense that the 2011 presidential poll is something of a foregone conclusion. This is not to say that Kabila will necessarily receive the most votes. Patterns of political support are an overlapping mosaic of local, ethnic and regional loyalties, turnouts are likely to vary wildly, and little polling has been conducted; predicting the actual pattern of voting is almost impossible. Rather that it is difficult to foresee a scenario in which a Kabila-dominated state apparatus announces or ratifies anything other than a victory for the incumbent.
Polls will doubtless be extremely chaotic. Accusations of rigging, intimidation, bribery and fraud are inevitable, as are criticisms of the organization. But this very chaos will make a meaningful parallel count almost impossible, observation will be piecemeal, and allegations of fraud will be anecdotal rather than comprehensive. Barring a complete meltdown of the process, there is unlikely to be a clear prima facie case for rejecting the result. So, facing a likely choice between accepting a democratically-dubious result and risking chaos by rejecting it, it is perhaps unsurprising that the international community has quietly declined to implicate itself too deeply.
But it is important to note that the vote this week is just the start of a long season of elections. Provincial assemblies will be elected in early 2012, followed, at least in theory, by long-delayed local elections in 2013. If change to Congo’s fortune is to come, it will come from below – from the long-suffering Congolese people themselves. Local political accountability will be pivotal to generating this change. It is thus vital that the provincial and local elections take place.
Few among the Congolese population really expect Kinshasa politics to be anything other than personalized, abusive and corrupt. So although violent protests are likely in Kinshasa and other urban centres as a result of Presidential and National Assembly elections, they will remain sporadic, short-term, and essentially limited to die-hard partisans; while political actors of all parties are seen as self-serving and corrupt, few are likely to risk violent repression and hunger to sustain a protest on their behalf.
But as the provincial and local polls bring politics closer to home, and to issues of real day-to-day significance to communities, so risks of unrest increase. The international community may have chosen to distance itself from Congolese national politics, but should be aware that significant opportunities, and dangers, are yet to be faced.
This is a shortened version of a programme paper.