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Understanding the DRC’s Presidential Elections

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a perfect example of the challenge in supporting a faltering democracy while expressing concern over potentially inaccurate election results.  The DRC, a vast and ethnically diverse nation, has never had a peaceful transition of power prior to January 2019 and has been in a perpetual state of conflict and political unrest. DRC obtained independence from Belgium in 1960, but this transition was immediately followed by conflicts among different factions in the country, all backed by different sides during the Cold War.

Image courtesy of Congozaire0, © 2011.

The DRC’s presidential election was originally scheduled for November 2016, after President Joseph Kabila’s second presidential term, but was postponed repeatedly delaying Kabila’s departure. Opposition accused Kabila of “undermining the electoral calendar and refusing to step down.” Kabila took over rule of the DRC in 2001 after his father, former President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated.

This election was the first hope for a peaceful political transition for the DRC and a start to a healing democracy. Unfortunately, the DRC’s presidential election shows that merely holding a democratic election does not make a country a true, healthy democracy.

Kabila finally agreed to new elections after he was pressured by leaders in the United States, Europe and the United Nations. The DRC presidential election was initially due to take place on 23 December 2018, but was then postponed to 30 December, after DRC’s electoral commission cited issues caused by a “fire that destroyed 80% of the voting machines in Kinshasa,” the DRC’s capital and “widespread logistics problems, insecurity and an outbreak of Ebola,” which would have potentially left millions unable to vote.

While pre-election polls indicated that Martin Fayulu was the favorite to replace Kabila, on 10 January, to the surprise of the population, DRC’s electoral commission announced Felix Tshisekedi the winner. Kabila supported another candidate, former interior minister, Emmanuel Shadary. Both internal polling data and independent civil service observers and observers from the Catholic Church propose it was “highly implausible” that Tshisekedi actually won the election. Many observers worried of election fraud.

The National Episcopal Conference of Congo, also known as CENCO, led by the DRC’s Catholic Church, was a key organization observing the elections and a highly trusted institution in Congo. CENCO deployed “1,026 short-term and 40,000 long-term observers to over 75,000 polling stations across the country.” The Catholic Church’s unofficial tallies did not match the electoral commission’s official results and show a different winner.

CENCO has long pushed for the departure of Kabila, pitting itself against the DRC government. The DRC’s election commission accused the Catholic Church of supporting a revolt by claiming a different winner and trying to brainwash the DRC population.

The African Union also expressed “serious doubts” about the election results and asked that DRC suspend its announcement of the final vote counts. Additionally, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is headed by Zambian President Edgar Lungu, called for a recount and proposed that the DRC consider forming a national unity government. The SADC is known for not publicly intervening in member state electoral affairs.

Additional fears of electoral fraud rose after the DRC government ordered total block on internet connections and SMS services after the election as a means of censorship. Speaking to Reuters, a senior adviser to Kabila, said internet and text messaging services “were suspended to preserve public order after ‘fictitious results’ were circulated on social media.”

While organizations both within and outside the DRC expressed concern over the potentially rigged election results, nothing was done to challenge the presidential results. The DRC election shows a great difficulty faced by the international community in both supporting burgeoning democracies and holding faltering democracies accountable. What leverage can we use to hold democracies accountable but still respect sovereignty?

Western countries did little more than voice skepticism and call for fair and accurate results and a peaceful transition, as the Congolese government is known to violently suppress public opposition. Fayulu filed a court challenge demanding a manual recount of the results, but the DRC Constitutional Court ruled that Tshisekedi was in fact the winner and rejected the challenge from Fayulu. This solidified Tshisekedi’s win, and he was sworn in as president on 24 January, the first peaceful transition of power, though marred by suspicion.

While the international community has expressed concern and skepticism over the election results, these election results show the one of the greatest challenges for the international community, holding other countries accountable, while respecting their sovereignty. The international community can demand full transparency during an election, even utilizing sanctions to attempt to financially pressure the government, but international pressure can only go so far. While there are challenges and points of concern in the DRC presidential election, it is important to remember that the election is just the starting point of the democratic transition. The real work is yet to come.


Sheila Archambault Helke

Sheila is a national security professional working in Washington, D.C. for the federal government. She focuses on counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Sheila graduated with an M.A. in international affairs from the Catholic University of America and a B.A. in international studies with a focus on the Middle East from the University of St. Thomas.

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