Saturday, December 03, 2011

This Week's OTHER Elections: the DRC Presidential Race

Photo by Jerome Delay/Associated Press

As Egyptian voters headed to the polls in record numbers on November 28, voters in the DRC queued up at the ballot box for a historic election of their own.  Monday’s national elections were only the second such democratic contest in Congolese history and the first to be run primarily by the state government rather than the UN, which provided significant logistical support during the DRC’s inaugural elections in 2006.  The key players in the Presidential race: incumbent Joseph Kabila and 78-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi, the state’s most popular opposition figure.  
In light of officials’ electoral inexperience and the DRC’s bloody political history, reports of rampant chaos and corruption during this week’s elections were not particularly surprising.  Many polling stations were woefully disorganized or unprepared for voter check-in, leaving people unable to locate their names on their towns’ voting lists.  Stations also struggled with ballot processing and security issues, with loose ballots left unattended in offices and entire collections of ballots disappearing from facilities altogether.  Election Commission president Daniel Ngoy Mulunda’s friendship with Kabila has led to allegations of fraud and cronyism among opposition parties’ supporters.  The process has also been stained by numerous reports of violent conflict, with state military forces coercing voters into supporting Kabila and opposition supporters burning down several voting stations in West Kasai Province.
Kabila’s increasingly-repressive policies and intense unpopularity among many Congolese voters, coupled with the numerous public allegations of electoral fraud, could lead to violent public uprisings if the election is decided in his favor.  Three of Kabila’s ten opponents have already called for an electoral annulment after initial results showed him leading with 52% of the vote.  Meanwhile, numerous Tshisekedi supporters have shared their intentions to “flood the streets” in protest if Kabila emerges victorious.  Members of the growing anti-Kabila movement have already proven their willingness to resort to violence, both through their destruction of polling stations and accounts of election-day brutality against electoral officials thought to be rigging the election in Kabila’s favor.  With even massive non-violent protests vulnerable to violence from the pro-Kabila Republican Guard, destructive public action by Kabila regime opponents would likely trigger an escalated military response that could result in significant civilian deaths.
A victory for Tshisekedi, however, would likely lead to an even bloodier reaction from the Kabila regime.  According to reports from Human Rights Watch, at least 14 people were killed in a government crackdown against a crowd of ten thousand or more Tshisekedi supporters, who had gathered to welcome him at Kinshasa Airport after his final campaign tour.  HRW has also reported that more than 18 Congolese have been killed and over 100 injured during clashes between Kabilia’s military supporters and Tshisekedi loyalists over the past week.  Armed Republican Guard forces have patrolled the streets of Kinshasa in military vehicles, in an overt and threatening show of support for their current President.  News of a Kabila defeat could lead the state’s military forces to retaliate against civilian celebrators and political supporters of the new regime, with or without direct orders from Kabila himself.  In an even more dire scenario, Kabila could declare the results null and void, use the military to forcibly retain control of his leadership post, and even order the execution of opposition leaders like Tshisekedi.
Where does the international community stand on this issue?  The UN Security Council has already condemned the recent electoral violence, and has called on both the candidates and their supporters to avoid future bloodshed.  However, a Tshisekedi-led DRC may not be the preferred choice for some members of the international community, particularly Western states.  Concerned about the nature of Kabila’s response to an electoral loss and the DRC’s possible plunge into even greater political instability, states will likely feel that even the current levels of economic and political corruption are preferable to renewed civil war or anarchy, especially given current levels of concern about Middle East regimes’ stability.  Tshisekedi’s history of public anti-Western sentiment, as well as “loose cannon”  actions like unilaterally declaring himself president in November, haven’t exactly endeared the candidate himself to the Western world, either.
As previously noted, preliminary election results indicate that Kabila is winning with 52% of the vote, while Tshisekedi is currently in second place with 34%.  Regardless of the victor, however, the DRC could well be poised to write a new chapter in its decades-long book of civil conflicts.

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