An Imperfect Victory for Democracy in Congo

A billboard of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s departing president, Joseph Kabila, was burned by supporters of the opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi. Credit Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/EPA, via Shutterstock
A billboard of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s departing president, Joseph Kabila, was burned by supporters of the opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi. Credit Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/EPA, via Shutterstock

At 3 a.m. on Jan. 10, bleary-eyed Congolese sat stunned in front on their TVs and radios. The preliminary results of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential elections were announced, and it was not, as many had feared, the anointed successor of President Joseph Kabila. Nor was it the opposition leader Martin Fayulu, whom the respected Catholic Church had projected to win. Instead, it was Felix Tshisekedi — the son of the opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi — who could be seen on Twitter and Facebook streams, hugging his wife and proclaiming victory.

These election results are extraordinary, in two very different ways. First, the president appears to have rigged the polls, not in favor of his preferred candidate but in favor of an opponent. In addition to the tallies of the Catholic Church, which deployed some 40,000 election observers, two polls commissioned just days ahead of the elections by the Congo Research Group also pointed to a Fayulu victory. According to our numbers, a Tshisekedi win would have been statistically impossible. He was 23 percent behind Mr. Fayulu, which would have translated into around 4.5 million votes. There are persistent reports — indignantly denied by Mr. Tshisekedi — that he has struck a deal with Mr. Kabila to guarantee the incumbent’s interests in exchange for the presidency.

But the results also underscore the Congolese people’s commitment to building a democracy. Whatever the true vote count may have been, it is clear that this is not the outcome that Mr. Kabila initially wanted. Faced with constitutional term limits, he was widely reported to have first considered changing the Constitution, then delayed elections for two years. In addition, he excluded key opponents from the race and brutally suppressed protests and opposition rallies, killing hundreds of people. In response, Congolese youth groups mobilized, many of them facing arrest, torture and worse. Inspired by these actions and an activist clergy, Catholics took to the streets by the thousands, prompting scenes of police beating up priests and tear-gassing churchgoers in the pews. It was these patient, courageous actions that hemmed in Mr. Kabila at every turn and pushed him to this current compromise.

In the end, however, these protesters did not risk their lives, nor did 19 million voters trek to the polls for a small group of politicians to concoct fake results and share power among themselves. A Tshisekedi victory is at risk of being regarded as illegitimate by many Congolese unless there is a transparent accounting of the results. The election commission must publish the breakdown of its results by polling station, so that independent observers can assess their credibility. Foreign diplomats should refrain from recognizing Mr. Tshisekedi’s victory until this has been done.

Observers and diplomats should also not solely focus on the presidential results. The Congolese constitution grants Parliament wide-ranging powers to propose a prime minister and a cabinet, and there is significant devolution of power to the 26 provinces. While their powers have been hitherto circumscribed, a Tshisekedi presidency will be frustrated at every turn if the Senate, the National Assembly and provincial parliaments are all dominated by Mr. Kabila’s coalition. These parliamentary results are expected to be announced in the coming days, and could provide a further indication of vote rigging and a potential deal between Mr. Kabila and Mr. Tshisekedi. It would be difficult to believe that Mr. Kabila’s coalition could have won a legislative majority if its presidential candidate got only 24 percent in the official tally.

Congolese democracy is not the only thing at stake. Around 4.5 million Congolese people are reportedly displaced, more than at any point in history. There are over 120 armed groups in the two eastern Kivu provinces alone, a dramatic proliferation compared with the situation a few years ago. This state of affairs is intimately linked to the corruption and dysfunctions of the government. As it violently battles peaceful demonstrators in urban areas, it has shown little interest in bringing an end to a peripheral war that does not threaten its survival. It has largely abandoned attempts at systematic army reform, and there are almost no demobilization programs for the multitude of armed groups. Instead, the government uses the army as a means to distribute patronage, ruling through weakness, not strength.

What Congo needs is more accountability — to stem the profiteering of multinational mining companies, to make the country’s security forces care more about the safety of citizens and to restore the dignity of the population. If Mr. Tshisekedi is reduced to a figurehead president, the current system of governance will most likely continue. Millions will be displaced, thousands will be killed, and the international community will be left to deal with the wreckage.

Jason Stearns is director of the New York University-based Congo Research Group and the author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of Congo and the Great War of Africa.

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