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DR CONGO ELECTIONS: How Félix Tshisekedi Won Chaotic Poll

The elections held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 20 December deserve many adjectives – flawed, chaotic, historic, complex, rigged.

Which ones to use, in which order, with how much emphasis? Was this a sign of democratic maturity, as the government would have it, or a sham, as the opposition has claimed?

It was certainly complex.

The country was electing a president, along with national, provincial, and local representatives. There were close to 41 million voters choosing between 100,000 candidates, who came from at least 70 political parties and coalitions.

Ballot papers, polling boxes, and voting machines had to be distributed at 75,000 stations around a country the size of western Europe with few roads. The election material was taken by foot, helicopter, dug-out canoes and motorcycles.

The polls were certainly also an historic opportunity. This is the fourth national election since the return of multiparty democracy in 2006; this was also the first time people in the diaspora could vote, and that local elections were held.

It was also a chance for the population to weigh in on the monumental challenges they face, to push their leaders to do better.

Seven million people are displaced in the mineral-rich east due to ongoing violence; 25 million have so little food that their lives are in danger; and, despite enormous mineral wealth, around 73% of the population lives in extreme poverty. And people did mobilise in large numbers, waiting patiently for hours to vote.

And yet, despite the kaleidoscope of parties and the massive challenges facing the country, the election campaigns were largely devoid of concrete policy proposals.

The main organising principle was whether you were with President Félix Tshisekedi and his Union for Democracy and Social Progress party (known by its French initials UDPS) or with “the opposition”. The reason for putting the latter in quotes is that it is more of an aspiration than a real organisation.

Its three main stalwarts­­ – Moïse Katumbi, a business tycoon and former governor, Martin Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil executive, and Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner – had tried and failed to unite on either a joint platform or behind a common candidate.

In the end, the elections were remarkably disorganised. “A gigantic, organised disorder,” Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of the Roman Catholic Church said.

“Une grande bouillabaisse,” a friend who was monitoring the elections described it – “a big electoral stew”.

The prelate’s alarm was informed by the 24,000 election observers fielded by the Catholic and Protestant churches.

The statistics they reported back are disturbing: in 551 polling stations (6% of those observed), fights broke out, often because voters were tired from waiting for hours, or because they could not find their names on the voting lists.

In 3%, ballot stuffing or the buying of votes was observed and in around a quarter of places the voting machines broke down.

The vote, which was supposed to last just for one day, continued for five days in some places, in violation of the electoral law.

The scandal that flooded social media was the phenomenon of “private voting machines”.

In one of these videos one can see someone shamelessly cranking out dozens of ballots for Mr Tshisekedi on a voting machine in the privacy of his own apartment; in another one can see two people getting into a fight over which candidate they should use the machine to cheat for.

While it is difficult to verify these videos, the election commission has admitted that some of its machines had been stolen or lost.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition did not even wait to hear the official results. Just days after the vote began, Mr Fayulu and Mr Mukwege called for the process to be cancelled, while Mr Katumbi said that he had in fact won.

On 29 December, the Catholic and Protestant churches gave their preliminary verdict. Their voice is critical.

In 2018, it was the Catholic Church that led the charge against the election commission’s official results, saying that Mr Tshisekedi had not won the vote.

In 2011, the bishops had slammed that result as “not reflecting the will of the people”.

Even this time, the churches had been on a war footing with the electoral commission – after all, the head of this body is supposed to be put forward by religious groups, but the government had snubbed the Catholics and the Protestants, who together probably represent around 70% of the population.

In the run-up to the poll, the head of the episcopal conference – the Catholic co-ordinating body in the country – had lambasted the commission’s chief, Denis Kadima, for getting the elections “off to a bad start”.

The clerics also deplored the violent repression of demonstrations, instrumentalization of the justice system and arbitrary arrests. Mr Kadima pushed back against his critics, calling them “prophets of doom”.

In the end, however, the religious leaders struck a milder tone. They observed that “one candidate clearly stood out from the others with more than half of the votes alone”.

In private, priests left no room for doubt. They confirmed the conclusion of the election commission – Mr Tshisekedi won.

This outcome, although not the stratospheric score of 73% proclaimed by the commission, was also what several pre-election polls suggested.

But the prelates cited “numerous cases of irregularities that could affect the integrity of the results of different ballots, in certain places”.

They pointed to the various legislative elections and called on the electoral commission and the justice system to live up to their responsibilities, presumably by cancelling the vote and charging abusers where necessary.

The president’s nationalist firebrand rhetoric – he promised to take the fight to Rwanda if they continue their alleged meddling in the east – and his record of free primary education were probably critical, as was a weak and divided opposition.

But this is hardly a victory for democracy.

The electoral commission was politicised, as were the courts responsible for judging election disputes. There was no thorough audit of the voter list, and opposition candidates faced headwinds in campaigning and mobilising.

All of this percolated into voter turnout: a paltry 43%, down from 67% from the heady 2006 elections. And the elections cost around $1.2bn (£945m), more than the country’s education or health budget.

As the opposition struggles to contest the results, the real threat is not political instability or riots – as investors and donors seem to fear – but rather the erosion of Congolese democracy.

In a country in dire need of greater accountability – to finally move from conflict and poverty to making the country “the Germany of Africa”, as Mr Tshisekedi has promised – this was a missed opportunity.

Credit: BBC

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