Africa: Divide and Rule - the Problem With the DRC's Electoral System

After a two-year delay, the DRC votes in elections on 23 December.
3 September 2018

Under the current rules (changed months before the last elections in 2011), the DRC's next president could come to power with just 5.3% of the vote.

When voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) finally go to the polls on 23 December, it looks like they will be faced with a choice of at least 19 presidential candidates. This crowded race is too close to call, but whoever emerges victorious will be tasked with governing a vast and diverse nation of around 80 million people.

They will need to be the president not just of those who voted for them, but also of those that didn't. This is a challenge for any elected leader, but in the DRC's case, this latter group could consist of the vast majority of the population.

Under DRC's electoral rules, the president is elected in a single round, making it one of the few African countries where executive presidents are popularly elected through the plurality system. Under this arrangement, whoever garners the most votes wins, even if they are far short of a majority. That means that with 19 candidates currently on the ballot, DRC's next president could - in theory - be elected with just 5.3% of the vote.

Such a breakdown is, of course, highly unlikely. In the 2011 elections, President Joseph Kabila won with 49%. In 2018, several candidates are already polling in the double-figures. Yet unless things change, it is still likely that the DRC's next president will come to office in a fragile and divided nation with a majority of his compatriots - perhaps a large majority - having voted for someone else.

Who's running?

With President Joseph Kabila ineligible to run again, the ruling coalition this December will be represented by Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. The former interior minister is not particularly popular domestically and is under European Union sanctions for his alleged role in human rights violations. On the ballot, he will joined by various other Kabila officials bidding for the presidency, including Minister Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba.

Among the opposition, candidates include Felix Tshisekedi, son of the veteran opposition leader Etienne, and Vital Kamerhe, a former Kabila ally turned opponent. A number of other opposition hopefuls look like they will not be running. Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president and warlord, was barred from running by the electoral commission though is appealing the decision. Meanwhile, Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga and another prominent opposition figure, was prevented from entering the country to submit his application in time.

For several years, there has been talk of the opposition uniting around a joint candidate. This could lead to a situation in which there is effectively a two-horse race between the ruling party and the opposition. This would mean that the winner would need a majority, or at least close to one, to win. But this is by no means guaranteed. Similar attempts to field a single challenger have failed in the past, while an early coalition could unravel as election day approaches.

With Kabila out of the race and the unpopular Shadary running in his place, opposition candidates may also be emboldened now to go it alone. According to a recent poll taken before candidacies were submitted, the main opposition nominees polled higher than those from the ruling party. Shadary was not even included in the survey. This could reduce the perceived need for opposition figures to join forces, ensuring the vote is split several ways.

A flawed system

The DRC's next president will face enormous challenges across the issues of security, politics and the economy. They will need all the support they can muster, yet the one round system makes it likely that the new leader will be someone for whom that the majority of Congolese never voted. This could undermine the new president's legitimacy and effectiveness.

To avoid this eventuality, the two-round run-off system could be reinstated. In fact, it was only abolished in 2011, just months ahead of that year's elections. To make this amendment without a referendum, the two legislative houses of the DRC would have to vote in favour of the change by a three-fifths majority.

Up to now, there has been little talk of a constitutional revision and it would crucially require the ruling coalition's buy-in. Yet such a change could benefit the ruling party the most given Shadary's low popularity. It seems highly unlikely the establishment candidate could win in the first round, but he could more feasibly build a coalition to win a run-off.

For the good of whoever becomes the DRC's next president, it is also in the opposition's interests - especially if it trusts its popularity - to back such a reform. Meanwhile, the regional and international community would similarly benefit from the DRC having a more stable and equitable electoral system.

Some may be concerned that a constitutional reform at this time could open up the opportunity for Kabila to abolish term limits, a possibility that many feared previously. But the deadline for candidates to submit their applications has long gone. And if Kabila could have changed the constitution in this way, he probably would have done so already.

There are of course many other concerns with these upcoming elections. The ruling party has a huge stake in maintaining power and has a record of overseeing widespread alleged electoral malpractices. It will take huge domestic and international efforts to ensure the process is not just peaceful but free, fair and credible.

However, it is also crucial to start examining what will happen after the results. It is true that a two-round system would incur greater financial and logistical costs. But it is surely a price worth paying to ensure that when the fragile DRC finally gets a new president, they will have as much credibility and legitimacy as possible.

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