Congo-Kinshasa: Making Sense of the Struggle for Democracy

Voters lining up in front of polling stations during Presidential and Legislative elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

On January 10, amid much controversy, the national electoral commission announced that Félix Tshisekedi had won the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) presidential poll. Prior to this, unofficial voting results leaked to diplomats and the press suggested Martin Fayulu had won.

Days later, compelling evidence emerged that Fayulu had won by a sound majority. The evidence was based on rigorous analysis of voting results provided by the Catholic church's network of observers and by voter tallies in the electoral commission's database.

In our view, confidence in democracy in the country will be built through incremental steps. Understanding the complicated dynamics at work now will solidify the foundation in the future.

One important factor to bear in mind is that citizens' movements in the DRC are now more powerful than conventional political parties. They anticipated political and strategic issues and assisted political parties in raising public awareness in the run up to the elections.

Also, the fact that during the 18-year struggle against outgoing leader Joseph Kabila several opposition leaders were bought by the regime further weakened political parties. Organisations in civil society didn't fall into this trap. The revival of civic engagement by the Comité laïc de coordination, a secular structure led by Catholic activists to demand Kabila respect the constitution and organise elections, was a lifeline for struggling political parties.

Civic engagement during the past decade has cultivated a demanding citizenry in the country. This is evident in the extent of the collective rage against any manipulation of the election's results. This represents a qualitative shift from previous elections. The fact that voting was closely observed, and results reported, represents considerable courage in the face of violence and intimidation.

Pre-election deal making

Months before the election, the political opposition was divided and without a clear consensus or strategy. In November 2018 seven opposition members agreed to attend a meeting in Geneva hosted by the Kofi Annan Foundation to discuss backing a single candidate. They hoped this would ensure the defeat of Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary.

Several rounds of voting were necessary to reach a fragile agreement over days of fraught deliberations. The agreement was contingent on the promise of holding free and fair elections, with a full field of candidates, within two years. Whoever became president under such circumstances would be in debt to the coalition that put him in power and seen as a transitional figure.

The fact that Fayulu, a businessman-turned-politician, was chosen - rather than leaders of the two largest political parties - sowed division among the opposition. Tshisekedi, who leads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and Kamerhe, leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation, later withdrew their pledge to support Fayulu.

This was seen by some as a betrayal and by others as a means of escaping from what the local press referred to as "un marché de dupes", or a trap.

Understanding why Fayulu was chosen must include considering who stands to benefit if he does indeed take office.

There are visible business interests and political actors supporting him. But given the complex coalition-building that made him into a national candidate it's difficult to discern what role other interests may be playing.

The Congolese people and citizens groups are committed to creating the necessary conditions for unfettered democracy, so that Congolese people can benefit from their country's wealth. This means electing leaders who aren't beholden to corrupt businessmen, inside or outside the country.

The top three

Fayulu studied in France and the US. He worked for ExxonMobil from 1984 to 2003 before becoming a member of parliament.

It's possible to see Fayulu as a political and strategic place-holder, more than a viable stand-alone candidate for president. He was active in the anti-Kabila opposition movement and a member of parliament. But before Geneva, few would've bet on him becoming president. He was an outsider without national popularity or many followers.

In practical terms, he's the national face of Lamuka ("wake up" in Lingala and Swahili), the opposition coalition supporting him. This coalition formed a strategic alliance and campaigned across the country.

Tshisekedi is a completely different political persona. The son of Étienne Tshisekedi, the popular opposition leader, he took over the leadership of his father's party the Union for Democracy and Social Progress in 2018 after Étienne passed away.

The son was considered a favourite in the presidential election from the outset due to both his party's struggle for democracy since 1982 and its popularity. But some members of the opposition are disappointed with him and feel he doesn't compare favourably to his father.

Others feel that he belongs to a new generation and has learned from his father's mistakes. Although he hadn't collaborated with Kabila's regime in the past, it has been reported that he likely made a deal with Kabila to assume power. The two key concessions he's reported to have made were assuring Kabila immunity from prosecution and allowing him to retain extensive power over mining and security.

For his part, Kamerhe isn't an exception in the Congo. He behaves like many politicians do: an informed opportunist who is always ready to help when needed for some profit in return.

Going forward

The opposition must avoid a stand-off framed as Tshisekedi against Fayulu. This would simply open the way for Kabila to step forward as the steady hand that stays in power to make peace.

Those who support democracy in the DRC should insist the true outcome of the election, regardless of who won, be respected. This includes Tshisekedi and Kamerhe who, in theory, have nothing to hide.

Phyllis Taoua, University of Arizona, Professor Albert Kasanda contributed to this article.

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