Deteriorating security, rampant poverty and illiteracy, logistical difficulties and allegations of rigging are among the concerns raised by analysts and activists ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for 28 November.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) has rebuffed opposition calls for the country’s second democratic polls since independence in 1960 to be postponed to ensure better planning.
"If things remain as they are - without dialogue between the electoral commission and political parties over the electoral process, as well as between the commission and civil society and the international community - and elections go on as planned, the result could be violence," Jerome Bonso, chairman of the National League for Free and Fair Elections, told IRIN in Kinshasa.
Bonso said these elections were taking place in a different context from 2006, when the last elections were held.
"We have to consider events such as the Arab spring where the population spearheaded change in their countries' leadership. The reality on the ground is that Congolese today need change," Bonso said. "If they fail to get this change through the elections, they might go the way the population in the Arab countries went."
According to Bonso, a spate of demonstrations has already led CENI to allow opposition delegates to audit its database, which had allegedly been “cleaned” of some popular candidates.
In a statement issued on 28 October - the day campaigns officially started - 41 international and domestic NGOs called for urgent measures to prevent electoral violence, better protect civilians and ensure credible, free and fair elections.
“This election in Congo is the ultimate test," Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa director at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said in the statement. "Is Congo on course to consolidate its fledgling democracy or return to a state of widespread instability, insecurity and violence? Second elections are vital to consolidate democratic peace gains in the country, complete a full electoral cycle and strengthen democratic institutions."
In the statement, the NGOs said recent events had indicated the alarming potential for more violence and destabilization over the electoral period. In September, several deaths and injuries occurred as demonstrators and police clashed in the capital.
"In addition to this election-related violence, the country has been ravaged by widespread insecurity for years, with a recent increase in attacks targeting humanitarian workers, including the deadliest incident in Congolese history, in which five aid workers were killed in October in South Kivu," the NGOs said.
"Security forces in the DRC are already struggling with ongoing insecurity and are unable to respond to any further escalation."
According to Phillip Biyoya Makutu, a professor of political science and international relations and director of the Panafrican Institute of Strategy and International Relations, conditions for transparent elections are not in place.
“In my opinion, the coming poll will weaken Congo rather than strengthen it because consensus was not respected [in the creation of the electoral commission] and we seem to be operating without one vision for the future," Biyoya said. "It seems the elections will be conducted on the basis of personal interest. The contenders are not prioritizing the aspirations of the voters; they are competing against each other – a fight of personalities.”
In an 18 October statement, the Carter Center noted delays in the electoral process, logistic challenges as well as those related to designing and printing the ballot papers.
"CENI and its partners, notably the UN Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) which provides air support for distribution of election materials among other assistance, are under serious time pressure to ensure the timely distribution of all necessary materials for the November 28 presidential and legislative elections," the Center said. "The very high number of legislative candidates - 18,386 - creates a complex challenge for ballot paper design, printing, distribution and accommodation of the resulting large ballots by the ballot boxes. Moreover, ballot box production and delivery is still under way."
CENI vice-president Jacques Djoli Eseng'Ekeli told IRIN the fact that the commission was operating under a tight schedule was the result of a parliamentary decision as "legally, CENI was set up in July 2010 but practically, it was installed in March 2011.
"It is only from this time that we started the preparations and planning for the elections. Political parties and civic society representatives all wanted the polls held as stipulated by the constitution - meaning that the mandate of the current president must end on 6 December; they wanted the presidential and parliamentary elections held at the same time, this has meant that CENI has had to work under a very tight schedule."
Djoli said the commission was ready for the 28 November polls, saying the printing of the ballot papers was nearing completion in South Africa while the ballot boxes were being sourced from China.
"The South African army will help to bring the ballot papers to 15 points across the country, from where they will be distributed with the help of MONUSCO," Djoli said. "According to the electoral calendar, the distribution of the electoral material was to take place between 22 October and 20 November; on a logistic level, we are trying to adhere to this schedule."
As the main financier of the elections, the government was facilitating the process, Djoli said. "It gives us the funding as it wishes; yesterday [18 October] it gave us [US]$20 million; we are hoping to get $30 million more before the end of the week to finalize payment of expenses to suppliers, mostly aircraft suppliers, since most of the operations are done using planes.”
Composition of CENI
According to Biyoya, the professor, although CENI was supposed to have been created through consensus, civil society was excluded from the process.
“As a result, the current electoral context is not about trust; there is mistrust with a lot of contestations from the opposition," he said. "To understand how the coming elections could lead to a crisis, one must understand how the preparations for the poll have gone so far.
"Mid-year, the authorities modified the country’s constitution to pave the way for a single round of voting for the presidency instead of the previous provision which allowed a second round in case no clear majority winner emerged. This modification seems to have been made to suit the interests of individuals."
The reality on the ground, however, Biyoya said, is that the majority of Congolese want change, especially in their social-economic situation.
“Poverty is rampant, provision of basic services is inadequate, unemployment is widespread and human rights are not respected,” Biyoya said, “and this makes for a catastrophic situation regarding social services. The question the Congolese are asking is ‘will things change?’ Not much has changed since 2006. Salaries remain low and often workers are not paid on time, hence the frequent strikes over pay and working conditions. The government responds that it is working to improve infrastructure such as roads but it seems it has neglected the people’s welfare."
Although there is international support for the elections, through the UN, the EU and other organizations, Biyoya said, the fact that it was not as big as in 2006 could undermine the conduct and outcome of the poll.
|The 28 November elections in figures:|
|0: No female presidential candidate|
|11: The number of presidential candidates|
|37: The average number of candidates competing for one legislative seat|
|56: The number of pages each ballot has due to the large number of parliamentary candidates|
|147: The number of political parties in the DRC|
|500: The number of parliamentary seats being contested|
|2,200: The number of women contesting National Assembly seats|
|18,500: The number of parliamentary candidates|
|62,500: Estimated number of polling stations across the country|
|32,500,000: The number of registered voters|
|64,000,000: The number of ballots printed in South Africa|
|Sources: CENI, MONUSCO, Carter Center, media|
“The legitimacy of the poll result will, however, depend on the arbitration of the international community. At least this time it looks like the international community is ready to sanction or act in case there is not transparency and credibility in the elections," Biyoya said. "Already, France and the UN Security Council have issued statements. This suggests they are closely watching the process.”
Opposition presidential candidate Oscar Kashala Lukumuena of the Union Pour La Reconstruction Du Congo (UPREC) said the main concern of the opposition was the electoral process.
“Take voter registration for instance, this process was based on criteria set out in the constitution. A total of 32.5 million voters were initially registered and when the voters' register was published online, it was found to have over 119,000 irregularities. Now, some of these have since been rectified but the problem has been the delay in this clearing process; the electoral body was supposed to publish this list at least 30 days before the start of campaigns [28 October] but this was done just recently," Kashala said.
“We have raised these concerns with the electoral commission because the elections must be done professionally and in a transparent manner. We, in the opposition, are not against the elections being held, we are concerned that it is unlikely that transparent elections will take place... We don’t want even a single drop of Congolese blood to be shed after the elections, that is why I am calling upon my fellow contestants, the government and the electoral commission to make sure the country does not revert to violence.”
Aubin Minaku, secretary-general of Majorité Présidentielle, President Joseph Kabila's ruling coalition, said: "Contrary to claims by the opposition that CENI favours Majorité Présidentielle, we picked our four nominees to CENI from civil society while the opposition picked their three from political parties; the chairman is from civil society and we even have a woman representative."
To prevent rigging, Minaku said, the opposition should have its agents at all polling stations. "They also have recourse to the courts should there be cheating or fraud of any kind. For us, we are ready for the elections and are confident of winning. If the opposition is not ready for the polls, they should not use the claim of pre-rigging as an excuse."
Christopher Ngoyi Mutamba, president and coordinator of the Synergie Congo Culturel et Développement (SCCD), stressed that civil society was concerned about the polls' transparency.
"Even though civil society was not consulted in the nomination of CENI commissioners, we believe those picked must be accountable to the people. So far, transparency seems to be lacking, we have lodged many complaints with the commission and even with international human rights organizations denouncing the lack of gender equity in CENI's composition."
Insecurity has increased across the country since the start of the electoral process, Ngoyi said. "Here in Kinshasa, for instance, I can no longer walk alone on the streets, I need my staff to accompany me as we try to sensitize people about the elections; we cannot go to elections when people are not informed of their rights, we cannot go to elections when opposition candidates are not free to move around."