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Postscript: Congo’s Elections

Author: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: August 21, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

(Editor's Note: Official results of the July 30 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo gave incumbent Joseph Kabila 44.81 percent of the vote, under the 50 percent he needed to win the election. Kabila’s closest rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, had some 20 percent of the vote. A run-off election is scheduled for October 29 amid concerns about violence erupting between rival candidates’ camps. The evening the results were announced, soldiers loyal to each candidate fought gun battles in the capital, Kinshasa.)

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The following is the text of CFR.org's guide to the election, published on July 27, 2006.

On July 30, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, will hold its first multiparty presidential and parliamentary elections since winning its independence from Belgium in 1960. The Congo has been ravaged by decades of conflict, from the corrupt U.S.- and French-backed regime of army general Mobutu Sese Seko to the spillover of Rwanda’s genocide in the late 1990s, which precipitated a regional war costing some 4 million lives. A peace deal signed in 2002 created a transition government in the Congo and limited stability. But the government is considered widely corrupt, while its hold on security remains fragile at best. Experts agree that given logistical challenges, security concerns in Congo’s eastern provinces, and a boycott by a central opposition party, success will depend on whether or not the Congolese people accept the poll’s results.

What issues are at stake in the upcoming elections?

The elections are more about establishing stability and sovereignty than any particular issue, experts say. “There’s no difference between the candidates on issues,” says Jason Stearns, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Congo. “[The election] is personality based.” Much of the population has never voted before and the country’s poor infrastructure means that very few candidates could launch a national campaign. Experts say the aim is for an accountable government to emerge that is able to take steps toward stabilizing the country and sustaining economic growth to lift Congo, one of Africa’s poorest countries, out of poverty.

What is the current government structure?

In 2002 a transition government was created in which power is shared among President Joseph Kabila and four vice presidents—named by Kabila’s former government, the political opposition, and two rebel movements, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). The same groups appointed members of a bicameral parliament. In the upcoming elections, Congolese voters will elect members for a 500-seat parliament, out of which the cabinet and prime minister will be selected by the president-elect. Members of the second legislative body, the national senate, will be elected indirectly; after provincial elections, local legislators will elect governors as well as members to the national senate. According to an International Crisis Group (ICG) report, corruption cripples every sector of the government, from customs to the army to state-run companies to the courts.

The army poses a particular problem. As part of national reconciliation, rebel militias were supposed to disband and reorganize into a national army and police. Thus far, eleven of the eighteen newly integrated brigades due to be set up before elections have been created. But many experts, including Indiana University’s Osita Afoaku, say this process is far from complete. “The army is shaky and unprofessional,” Afoaku says. CFR Senior Fellow Princeton N. Lyman agrees that security sector reform has not proceeded very well, adding that the UN peacekeeping force, MONUC, has been unsuccessful in monitoring the trafficking of arms to rebel groups in the eastern Ituri area.

What is the role of the United Nations in Congo?

The UN peacekeeping force (MONUC), which includes 17,000 troops at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year, is the world’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation. Primarily stationed in the volatile eastern provinces of Ituri and North and South Kivu, MONUC has increased their raids on rebel groups in the past six months. Some experts say the elections, which were delayed several times because of security concerns, hinge on MONUC’s presence. Afoaku says without MONUC, “you cannot even talk about elections taking place at this point in time.” But others point to the drawbacks of MONUC operations—the displacement of entire villages and the chaos of launching joint-operations with poorly paid and ill-trained government soldiers. The UN peacekeeping mission is currently investigating reports that its forces contributed to a massacre of civilians during joint operations with the Congolese army. As a UN official told Reuters, “The bottom line is that our joint operations have failed.”

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) coordinated voter registration and election preparations in a joint initiative with MONUC. The program is the largest and most complex electoral-assistance mission the United Nations has ever undertaken.

What challenges will the elections face?
  • Poor security in eastern provinces. Stearns, stationed in the eastern city of Goma for the elections, says there are pockets of instability in the eastern provinces of Ituri and the Kivus but “there are no militias that I know of that explicitly want to interfere with the polls.” He adds that some people will not be able to vote because rampaging rebel militias have forced them to flee their towns. Lyman says it will be hard for many people in the east to vote, but “some of the militia leaders may be anxious to get their voters out.”
  • Poor infrastructure. Experts say this is the most complicated—and at some $422 million dollars, the most expensive—election the international community has ever helped administer. The Carter Center’s Colin Stewart, who is based in Congo to monitor the election, calls the logistics of the poll “mind-boggling.” Congo is the size of Western Europe, and with less than 300 miles of roads traversing the country, election workers at many isolated polling stations will have to lug their ballots into a compilation center for tabulation on foot, a process that will take at least a week.
  • Boycotts. Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of opposition group Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDSP), is boycotting the elections, and a segment of the Catholic Church is calling for Congolese voters to abstain. Afoaku believes these boycotts are a major concern and an International Crisis Group report on the elections says the UDSP boycott could contribute to unrest in Kinshasa, the capital. Others downplay UDSP’s significance. Stewart says “they have waned in influence by their decision not to participate.” 
  • Uneducated population. The International Foundation for Elections Systems (IFES) has a civic education program in six provinces that they say covers approximately 60% of registered voters. However, some experts say many of the country’s 25 million registered voters do not understand their civic role and what it means to vote. International donors have not given enough attention to civic education, Stewart says. “It is not just about teaching people how to vote,” he adds, “but ensuring that citizens actually understand what their role is and go about making that role active.”
Who are the main presidential candidates?
  • Joseph Kabila. The current head of state, 35-year-old Joseph Kabila assumed office in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, a longtime guerrilla leader who seized power in the final days of the collapsing Mobuto regime. As one of the few candidates with national name recognition, experts label the younger Kabila as the clear frontrunner. Critics say he is using state resources—the police, the army, the media—to run his campaign and draw attention to Kabila’s upbringing (he grew up in exile in Tanzania). He speaks French but cannot speak Lingala—Congo’s lingua franca. Before campaigning began, Kabila had only given two news conferences in Kinshasa and made very few speeches.
  • Jean-Pierre Bemba. The vice president of economy and finance in the current government, Bemba is the leader of MLC, an ex-rebel movement close to the Ugandan government. He has spent more than $20 million of his own money campaigning and has strong support in his native region in the northwestern Equator province. 
  • Pierre Pay Pay Wa Siaggassighe. Pay Pay held several key offices in Mobutu’s cabinet, including governor of the central bank. As his moniker, “Mr. Cash,” indicates, his link to Mobutu’s corrupt bureaucracy has not been forgotten.
  • Oscar Kashala. A Harvard cancer-research specialist who has lived in the United States since 1987, Kashala is a political novice who portrays himself as free of the corruption that plagues Congo’s politicians and civic structures. He has compared himself to Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, a fellow Harvard alum.

Some presidential hopefuls could not enter the race, which required a $50,000 registration fee. The thirty-three candidates who did had only four weeks to campaign, a limitation that adds to Kabila’s advantage as an incumbent. The sheer number of presidential candidates means Kabila is unlikely to win the simple majority necessary to claim outright victory. A second-round election would be a run-off between the top two candidates.

What is the likelihood the elections will be free and fair?

Optimism hardly abounds. There will be some 1,300 international election observers, hundreds of Congolese observers, and several thousand election witnesses—monitors who belong to political parties and have the ability to launch an official complaint if they witness irregularities. But most observers will be concentrated in the urban centers, says Stewart, as it is very hard to get out to the more-isolated areas of the country. In addition, international observers are always deployed in pairs, and the United Nations, which has offered to provide emergency evacuation if there is trouble, will only do so out of the sixty-two compilation centers. These sites will be “stacked high” with observers, Stewart says, but with some 49,000 polling stations throughout the country, Stearns says that “hundreds if not thousands” of them will be without observers or witnesses on Election Day. 

When will provincial elections be held?

No date has been announced yet. If there is a presidential run-off, provincial elections will be held at the same time, likely in late October. Because the Congolese government is designed to be decentralized, with the provincial legislatures controlling local natural resources, some experts say those elections are more significant than the presidential and parliamentary polls. Stearns says “most Congolese are placing more hope on the provincial elections than the current ones. If you look at the federal budget, only 2 percent is programmed for outside Kinshasa, so they are very skeptical about what the government can do for them.” Lyman adds that the provincial elections are “very important because it’s in the regions that the resources are and much of the unrest has taken place.” The provincial legislatures are also responsible for a set of indirect elections; they will elect governors as well as members to the national senate, the second parliamentary body.

What issues will Congo face after the elections?
  • Maintaining international support. It’s possible the United Nations will want to downgrade the size of their force. As Lyman notes, “There is already pressure to downgrade the Liberia force. I would not be at all surprised if we start to hear the same things if there is a successful election.” But in the Financial Times, William Swing, Congo’s top UN envoy, says “Almost everything here is broken or in a state of disrepair. The international community must not see the elections as an exit strategy.”
  • Weeding out corruption. As graft is institutionalized at all levels, it will be a tremendous challenge to form an accountable government. The International Crisis Group recommends raising government salaries, rehabilitating the justice sector, and strengthening the provincial assemblies.
  • Improving security. Many experts are concerned that if the elections are not seen as legitimate, there could be urban unrest. Stearns says, “If the new government is not seen as inclusive and does not strike a discourse of reconciliation with the Hutus and Tutsis [in the east], those populations have strong militias that could launch new insurgencies.” According to the ICG report, “The logic of the ballot has not yet replaced the logic of the gun. It has merely become an appendix to it.”

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