The Democratic Republic of Congo Holds Tense Elections: What to Know

In Brief

The Democratic Republic of Congo Holds Tense Elections: What to Know

Congo’s elections on December 20 are unlikely to deliver meaningful change to address massive insecurity in the east, corruption scandals, and persistent poverty.

What record is incumbent President Félix Tshisekedi running on, and who are the main challengers to watch?

President Tshisekedi came to power through the long-delayed elections of 2018, succeeding Joseph Kabila, who led the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for eighteen years. At the outset of his term, Tshisekedi governed with the backing of Kabila’s political machine, but he devoted much of his initial energy to defanging his predecessor and was largely successful in limiting Kabila’s once-formidable influence. The rest of his record is more mixed; insecurity persists in eastern Congo, where multiple armed groups continue to jockey for access to territory and resources, resulting in catastrophic civilian displacement. Corruption and a lack of accountability continue to sap resources from the state. Tshisekedi’s reelection campaign touts his signature policy initiative of providing free primary education to Congolese citizens, but his implementation of this effort has been complicated and uneven. 

Supporters of incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi gather at a campaign rally in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Supporters of incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi gather at a campaign rally in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Stringer/Reuters

Despite these challenges, pundits favor Tshisekedi to win in part because the opposition remains divided, with over twenty candidates currently planning to run for the presidency. Among the most prominent of these challengers are Moïse Katumbi, a businessman and former governor of the Katanga Province with a significant political following; Martin Fayulu, who, due to documented election fraud, has reason to believe that he was the actual winner of the presidential vote in 2018; and political novice Denis Mukwege, a medical doctor who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to protect victims of sexual violence.

Will the election be free, fair, and credible?

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The Tshisekedi administration’s commitment to holding the election on December 20 is a positive, as many skeptics had predicted a repeat of the delaying tactics that Kabila had used to stay in power beyond his mandate. But the pre-electoral playing field is not a level one: political violence and politically motivated prosecutions persist. The most recent assessment of the U.S.-based watchdog group Freedom House scored the country at only four points out of a possible forty for political rights. Opposition supporters have raised serious concerns about the integrity of the voter registration process. 

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The Carter Center, a U.S.-based group with a long track record of monitoring elections, has a team on the ground and plans to observe the election, and the African Union (AU) has similar plans. Worryingly, at the end of November, the European Union announced that it would cancel its observation mission, citing technical and security issues. But the most important observer mission on the ground will be the joint mission organized by the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO) and the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC), which are Catholic and Protestant organizations, respectively. Because of its nationwide reach and record of integrity, CENCO-ECC has credibility abroad and at home, and the degree to which it is free to deploy an extensive, well-coordinated observation effort and parallel vote tabulation mission will be an important indicator to watch.

A map of the DRC with relevant data points, such as population (112 million).

How will the DRC’s ongoing conflicts affect the vote?

Insecurity and displacement will doubtlessly keep a significant number of Congolese citizens from the polls; the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that seeks to prevent war, indicates that more than a million people are without voters’ cards due to the violence. Moreover, a contested election result will only heighten tensions, potentially sparking even more civil conflict. Given the recent history of heavy-handed repression—security forces killed scores of protestors in just one incident in August, for example—the potential for violence is substantial.

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It’s also unclear if a successful election can lead to meaningful security gains regardless of the outcome. The Congolese government has castigated both the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) and the forces deployed by the East African Community (EAC) for their failure to protect civilians and defeat the March 23 Movement (M23) and Allied Democratic Forces insurgents in the east, prompting both MONUSCO and the EAC to accelerate their withdrawal timelines. As the Southern African Development Community (SADC) weighs whether it will be wading into the morass soon, nothing indicates that SADC troops have the magic formula for resolving the region’s complex problems either, nor that the DRC will be more effective at providing security in the absence of external support. Addressing the long-standing crisis in the east will require diplomacy to reining in external sponsors of armed groups via diplomacy, reforming the security sector, extending governance to long-neglected areas, providing alternative job opportunities to fighters, and disentangling the web of economic interests and actors that fuel the fighting. None of these is a quick fix.

What might the election results mean for the DRC’s relationships to other international actors, such as the United Nations and neighboring countries?

Popular sentiment and genuine frustration dictate that any Congolese leader will likely continue pressing for MONUSCO’s withdrawal, and on the stump, major opposition candidates have suggested that by increasing salaries in the security sector, the DRC’s own forces can bring peace to the region. Likewise, any victorious candidate is likely to continue exhorting other countries to hold Rwanda accountable for supporting the M23 rebel movement.

More on:

Democratic Republic of Congo

Elections and Voting

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Future of Democracy

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The credibility of the DRC’s election, and any postelection violence, could find its way to the agenda of multiple states in the region, in addition to the AU. But if the past is prologue, the AU and interested organizations such as the EAC and the SADC will prioritize stability over electoral integrity.

Likewise, other external actors, including the United States and China, will continue to be interested in the DRC’s vast mineral reserves as they pursue the transition to a green economy, and the world cannot afford to ignore the urgency of protecting the Congo Basin, one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks. Paradoxically, any Congolese leader will struggle to address the country’s most urgent domestic problems but will have significant leverage to deploy in navigating the international landscape because major powers need Congo’s resources.

Michael Bricknell created the map for this In Brief. 

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