Congo-Kinshasa: Bad Times for Democracy in DR Congo

19 December 2018

Pre-election chaos, fears of vote rigging in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- the timing of elections so close to Christmas is no coincidence, says DW's Dirke Köpp.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the decision to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on December 23 is no coincidence. It's a time when half the world's population will hardly look beyond their own homes and their festively decorated Christmas trees. It's a good time for a poll that will attract little international scrutiny in connection with vote rigging, organizational mishaps or acts of repression.

Democracy in the DRC exists pretty much only in the country's name. Apart from this, it is hard to find. It is already two years since Joseph Kabila, who was president at the time, should have stepped down, but he only agreed to relinquish power a few months ago. As his successor he picked a loyal but shady character - someone on whom the EU has slapped sanctions because of his role in using violence to end demonstrations. Kabila has also indicated he intends to remain politically active. His successor, 58-year old Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, will therefore be little more than a marionette.

Violence, disease and a lack of infrastructure

The elections are overshadowed by violence, there have already been some deaths. Opposition candidates complain of threats and harrassment. But among their supporters are also some politicians who are anything but democrats, for example former vice president and ex-militia boss Jean-Pierre Bemba whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) found guilty of bribing witnesses.

Logistically, too, preparations for the elections are in a state of chaos. In the vast country with little functioning infrastructure, there are places which do not have the necessary materials to hold an election. In the east, an outbreak of the deadly Ebola disease is still not under control. There are also armed groups who kill civilians on an almost daily basis, and who make it practically impossible to hold an election.

What happened on December 13 has made things even less clear. Ten days before the elections, fire broke out at a warehouse used by the electoral commission in the capital Kinshasa. It contained more than two thirds of the election material for the city -- including 8,000 of the almost 10,400 voting machines intended for use by the Kinshasa electorate. The introduction of these machines has been a topic of dispute for months between government and opposition, with the opposition fearing they will be used to ensure victory for Kabila's party.

One fire, many interested parties

The flames were not yet extinguished as conspiracy theories and accusations began to make the rounds. When one takes a closer look, it becomes clear that several parties could have an interest in the fire. The opposition because it rejects the voting machines, Kabila and his supporters because they would then remain longer in office, if only temporarily.

The government and the electoral commission have been trying to reassure the Congolese that the election will take place, even without the machines. The government says material will be brought from other regions to Kinshasa. The voting process would then just take a bit longer. But is there really enough time? After all, 17 million of the 80 million Congolese live in Kinshasa, one fifth of the total population. As many of them are opposition supporters, this begs the question whether the government is really interested in their votes. In other words, all the signs point to the right to vote being trampled underfoot.

It is highly likely that, if the elections do go ahead on December 23, there will be more violence. But it will probably take many deaths and clashes for the rest of the world to take notice at this time of year, with all the distractions of Christmas. Even massive vote rigging would probably attract little interest.

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