Voting in the Congo on November 28, 2011. Credit: NDI (http://flic.kr/p/aMm424)
This blog post is the first in a series by several leading analysts on Congo who the Museum has invited to contribute their thoughts, news, and observations regarding potential threats to civilians during Congo's elections and the potentially tumultuous period following the vote. The views expressed are the authors'.
Congolese voters go to the polls choose legislative and presidential leaders for the second time on Monday, November 28. As several analysts have noted, the risk of election-related violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is significant. The month-long campaign period has already resulted in serious violence, with up to ten dead in Kinshasa over the weekend and several protests being met with violent responses from the police and military. Some Congo-watchers believe violence will be short-term, sporadic, and limited to urban zones, while others fear violence could spread rapidly. Are these fears well-founded?
Congolese citizens already live under some of the worst humanitarian conditions in the world. Their country ranks dead last on this year's UNDP Human Development Index, which measures quality-of-life indicators like income, health, and education levels. One in five Congolese infants die before their fifth birthday, more than one in ten infants die in childbirth, and life expectancy for both men and women is less than fifty years. Simply being born Congolese puts a citizen at high risk of dying an untimely death from preventable causes.
These appalling statistics result from a combination of factors, including poor governance, lack of access to employment and financial resources, and the lingering effects of state collapse and of the country's wars. As such, elections are a key marker in Congo's progress towards rebuilding the state, re-establishing governance, and improving the lives of its civilians over the long-term.
The same elections that are necessary to continue D.R. Congo's transition to democracy also pose risks, however, and the potential for post-electoral violence may cause even more problems in the short, medium, and long runs. At issue is the fact that the country is deeply divided in its support for the eleven presidential candidates, including incumbent President Joesph Kabila. Kabila, who came to power after his father's assassination in 2001 and was democratically elected in 2006, is deeply unpopular, particularly in the western Congo, which includes the capital Kinshasa. There, support is divided among ten opposition candidates, the most prominent of whom are the UDPS party's Etienne Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe, who hails from the east. Tshisekedi, who stood up to Mobutu and, at 78 is the oldest of the candidates, sees himself as the rightful heir to Congo's presidency. He enjoys strong support in Kinshasa as well as in the Kasai provinces, which are home to the ethnic group from which Tshisekedi hails, the Luba.
Kabila won in 2006 with strong support from the eastern Congo, where voters speak his Kiswahili language and from where his family hails. This year, however, eastern Congolese voters are disillusioned with Kabila's rule. They have not seen as many benefits from Kabila's 2006 promises of increased stability and better infrastructure, and many voters there will not support him at the polls. Because Kabila knows his re-election is at risk, his supporters in Parliament changed the Constitution earlier this year to allow the president to win with a simple plurality of the vote rather than a majority, which means that no candidate has to attain fifty percent plus one of the vote. Rather, whoever gets the most votes will win.
Why might this result in violence? First, few in Kinshasa believe that Kabila can win fairly. Those voters are probably wrong; Kabila is likely to legitimately win 30-35% of the vote nationwide, but almost all of his support will come from outside of Kinshasa. Reality often matters less than perception, however, and the perception in Kinshasa will be that if Kabila wins the election, he must have stolen it. Given that outcome, Kinois voters are likely to take to the streets demanding that Kabila step down, and they will likely be met with a violent response from Kabila's presidential guard.
More potential for violence exists in the reaction of authorities and civilians to perceptions of irregularities and fraud in the voting process. Already, reports are coming in of hundreds of thousands of names being missing from voter rolls and rumors are flying that ballot papers have been pre-marked and that pens at the polling stations are filled with erasable ink. A number of polling stations had not received ballots as of Sunday night, meaning that voters in those regions will be completely disenfranchised. If Congolese civilians do not feel that their votes are cast and counted in an ethical and fair manner, some may take to the streets in protest.
The other potential for violence comes much later. As Chatham House's Ben Shepherd notes, local and provincial elections are scheduled in 2012 and 2013, and these may provoke significantly more violence in more places as voters express their frustrations about the country's lack of progress.
Is violence inevitable in the Congo this week or in the weeks to come? Not necessarily. The country enjoys a distinct advantage over 2006 in that none of the major presidential candidates still maintain private armies, as was the case with Jean-Pierre Bemba's MLC militia last time around. But politics in the country are still not settled on the basis of the rule of law, corruption is still rampant, and few feel that the electoral process reflects their wishes for the country's future. These factors do not bode well for a peaceful electoral process.
Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches courses on African politics, conflict, and international affairs. She also maintains an academic blog examining Africa politics, security, development and advocacy at: texasinafrica.blogspot.com. The views expressed here are her own.