Two years later than scheduled, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is set finally to hold national elections on 23 December. Joseph Kabila, who many feared would never relinquish power, is now poised to stand down as president. So, will this be a turning-point for a country that has experienced violence and instability for decades? The omens do not look good – there is a real risk that the elections could destabilise the country further.
Since accepting that he could not stand for a third presidential term, Joseph Kabila has used a variety of stratagems to avoid holding elections until he deemed the time was right. He was able to defuse a major upsurge in popular protest against the postponement of elections in late-2016/early-2017 by ostensibly endorsing an agreement mediated by the Catholic Church for the establishment of a broad-based transitional government that would remain in place until April 2018, when the elections would be held.
However, the agreement was never fully implemented. With key opposition forces mistrustful and divided over whether to participate, the new transitional government ultimately remained dominated by Kabila loyalists. Kabila soon returned to one of his oldest tactics – claiming that more time was needed to prepare the country for elections – to delay them again, this time to 23 December 2018.
With the Constitutional Court having ruled that Kabila could stay in office until a replacement was elected, many wondered whether his real intention was to delay the elections indefinitely. But others felt that he was motivated more by a desire to buy time until he could be sufficiently confident that he was safe from prosecution and that his wealth would be protected.
It is increasingly clear that the latter school of thought was closer to the mark. A law giving ex-presidents immunity from prosecution, lifetime security protection and free housing has been passed. Kabila has reportedly strengthened the presence of loyalists in the security forces and other key institutions, including the Independent National Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court. The party he created, the Parti Politique pour la Reconstruction et la Democratie (PPRD) has created a new role, that of party president, which looks tailor-made for him once he has left office.
Last but not least, he has hand-picked the PPRD’s presidential candidate, former interior minister and long-standing ally of Kabila, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
The elections are unlikely to be free or fair
Kabila still has a problem: Shadary is little known and opinion polls suggest that he is unlikely to win in a fair fight. This has increased the likelihood that the elections will be rigged. Paradoxically, the highly-belated enthusiasm of the authorities for holding elections could be an indication that the plans to do this are in place. Critics and opponents are particularly suspicious about the 100,000 electronic voting machines which are to be used in the elections.
Analyst Kris Berwouts wrote last month:
If the Congolese government manages to organise the elections in time, it will organise them in order to win them. It will deploy all the pressure, fraud, intimidation and violence necessary to do so. The chances of free and fair elections are nil. That is why the authorities are deploying heavy repression against any potential watchdogs. Congolese journalists and observers bear the brunt of this, but foreigners are also targeted.
The main presidential contenders
Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary is standing as the candidate of a rapidly-constructed coalition of parties called the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC).
He faces two main opponents for the presidency:
Félix Tshisekedi, son of Étienne, who led the Union pour la démocratie et le progress social (UPDS) for decades until his death in 2017;
Martin Fayulu, who is the candidate of the Lamuka (Arise) Coalition of opposition parties.
While Fayulu is a credible candidate, he is not well-known outside the capital, Kinshasa. His prospects have been further weakened by the fact that he originally had Félix Tshisekedi’s support, along with that of another erstwhile presidential aspirant, Vital Kamerhe, but quickly lost it after their supporters rejected falling in behind him.
Other potential presidential candidates opposed to Kabila – Moise Katumbi, a former governor of Katanga Province now in enforced exile, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, recently acquitted on appeal of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court and released – have been disqualified from standing by the authorities on dubious grounds. They are currently backing Fayulu.
Kamerhe has now agreed to be Félix Tshisekedi’s running-mate. The polls suggest that Tshisekedi is by some distance the most popular presidential candidate standing on 23 December. We shall have to wait and see whether this counts for anything – or whether he will follow in the footsteps of his father, who some believe was unfairly robbed of victory by Kabila and his backers in the 2011 presidential elections. But while the authorities hold most of the cards, they do not hold them all. Kabila’s adversaries will be hoping that some of the fault-lines within the regime might widen if Shadary performs very poorly.
Elections could lead to increased violence across the country
Should the outcome of the elections become a matter of intense dispute, this could lead to further upsurges in violence across the country, some parts of of which (most notably, the east, where there has also been a major Ebola outbreak, and Kasai) are seriously affected by intractable conflicts. Africa Confidential reports that some national army officers are even talking in terms of a “third Congolese war”, with troops from neighbouring countries potentially becoming drawn into the DRC once again.
Role of the international community
There is a lot at stake for the international community, which has poured much money and effort into the DRC over the last twenty years. But there are fears that, in the end, a Shadary victory will be met with international acquiescence.
With China playing a greater role in the country, Western influence in the DRC is less than it has been in the past. One key indicator of the likely future Western stance could be whether the EU Foreign Affairs Council decides when it meets on 10 December to renew sanctions imposed against 16 Congolese individuals in December 2016 and May 2017 – including Shadary himself. The African Union has said that it wants the sanctions lifted.
Some experts have expressed hope that effective election observation might act as a disincentive against rigging. But local observer groups are being heavily harassed by the authorities and it currently looks highly unlikely that Western observer missions will be allowed into the country. The authorities have, however, said that official African observers are welcome.
The UK government has called for “credible elections” but is concerned that they will not happen. It is providing funding to local observer groups. It has also been supporting efforts to bring a serious Ebola outbreak under control.