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Why The DRC’s Election Is a Halting Step Towards Embedding Democracy

So, it can be argued that the DRC’s electoral glass is just about half-full, not half-empty, at least for now. But there are many more challenges to come

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Provisional results have been announced for the December 20, 2023 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), indicating victory for incumbent Felix Tshisekedi. 

The incumbent has won the election with over 70 percent of the vote, according to the country’s election commission’s statement. Tshisekedi was followed by businessman Moise Katumbi, who received 18 percent, and Martin Fayulu who received 5 percent. 

Nobel Peace Prizer Winner Denis Mukwege, a physician renowned for treating women brutalized by sexual violence in Eastern Congo, got less than 1 percent.

Tshisekedi’s second mandate will be confirmed through a constitutional court after the final results on January 10 and the president is scheduled to be sworn in at the end of January, making him president until 2028. 

Opposition candidates have already rejected the results and have called the population to mobilize in protest of what they have termed as rigged election.

READ MORE: Why DRC Matters

Despite a number of many electoral malpractices, including; late opening of polling stations or some not opening at all, a Tshisekedi victory was widely predicted – he had the backing of some of the DRC’s political heavyweights, bringing votes from many corners of the country’s fractured electoral mosaic, and faced a divided opposition that proved unable to unite behind a single candidate.

Though Tshisekedi did not deliver fundamental change during his first term, his promise of free primary education was well received, as well as the efforts to renegotiate mining contracts signed under his predecessor. His militant stand against Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in the east of the country is also likely to have played well with a war-weary public.

Continuity, cynicism and political theatre

Perhaps more importantly, he offered continuity. If confirmed, Tshisekedi’s landslide should not be taken as evidence for personal popularity. It is rather a demonstration of the perverse stability of the DRC’s political system – one that runs on networked individuals more than institutions and laws. 

The country’s vast wealth is funnelled into the hands of a tiny elite, meshed in a network of reciprocal relationships that transcend politics. This elite compete for access to resources, largely leveraged through access to the state and its administrative functions – but are united by the overriding imperative of keeping the system running.

READ MORE: EAC Membership Is No Panacea for DRC’s Problems

This turns much Congolese politics into theatre. Individuals start parties, campaign and promise change as a way of auditioning for entry into elite networks, or to help advance their position within them. 

Political parties are often therefore little more than vehicles for individual ambition, forming mutable and opportunistic coalitions that fall apart and reshape according to their leaders’ ambition and the prevailing winds of the day.

This in part explains why there were 26 candidates for president. Though six stepped down during the campaign in favour of one of the leading candidates. Opposition unity behind a single challenger proved an impossible hurdle. 

It also explains the deep cynicism about politics among the Congolese population. The DRC is a politically literate country, with a sophisticated electorate that well understands their system and its flaws. 

They are also often dependent on the largesse of that system, even if only crumbs remain once the elite channel resources into their own subsidiary systems of patronage.

The result is a degree of political fatalism that is surprising in such a wealthy country, where the vast majority live in deep poverty. According to vast media reports, turnout for the 2023 election is estimated to have been 40%, but polling estimated that more than half the electorate did not intend to cast their vote. 

Opposition complaints

Opposition leaders have cried foul. Moise Katumbi described the process as a ‘fraud’ and called for the result to be annulled, but ruled out a legal challenge due to doubts over judicial impartiality.

READ MORE: DRC Admission a Game Changer for EAC Region

Martin Fayulu, the candidate who in all likelihood won the 2018 election, only to see it handed to Tshisekedi, has also rejected the result. Alongside four other candidates – including Nobel-prize winning Dr Denis Mukwege – he was calling for a rerun before polls closed, citing disordered voting that was extended way beyond the legally mandated period.

Their complaints about electoral organization have obvious merit. The electoral process was extremely chaotic, with the National Episcopal Conference (CENCO) recording more than 5,400 incidents at polling stations. 

The Carter Centrem, too, noted serious violations at nearly a fifth of stations attended by its observers, on top of a long list of challenges to voter registration and to the delivery of electoral materials. 

But it is impossible to say with any certainty whether there is truth in allegations of planned fraud, absent compelling evidence of systematic malpractice in vote counting or compilation. It is therefore hard to imagine the DRC’s international or regional partners adding their voices to opposition calls for annulment or an election rerun.

READ MORE: ‘Democracy Should Go Beyond Elections’

More importantly, there has been little reaction so far from the street. Some Fayulu supporters clashed with security forces in the capital, but the scale of the protests was nothing like what a truly angry Kinshasa could deliver. The churches, which were crucial in generating and focusing popular discontent in 2018, have to date said relatively little. 

A glass half full?

Seen in a longer perspective, this election is likely to be received as another halting step on the DRC’s journey to embedding democracy. The 2023 vote was Congo’s fourth post-conflict election, and polling took place according to the agreed timetable, in contrast to repeated delays last time. 

Many had feared that key opposition figures would be excluded, notably Moise Katumbi, but all were able to stand and campaign relatively freely. The process has also, thus far, been largely peaceful.

READ MORE: Former African Leaders Explain Motivations to Support Drive for Democracy

And while voting was undoubtedly deeply flawed, this was to a certain extent inevitable given the logistical challenges of coordinating more than 75,000 polling stations in a context such as the DRC. So, it can be argued that the DRC’s electoral glass is just about half-full, not half-empty, at least for now. But there are many more challenges to come.

John Kitoka is the Executive Director of HakiTaarifa Tanzania and an independent analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He can be reached through his cell number—+255 755 622697 or by email: kitoka2000@gmail.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com  for further inquiries.

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