I am sitting in the lobby of the CARITAS Guest House in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on a chilly Monday morning, where I have just been discussing the upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections with CAFOD partners and colleagues over breakfast. Actually, that was the topic of conversation last night too, and the night before that.
Yet, this isn’t just an intellectual exercise or a debate of political ideals – the outcome of these elections is absolutely central in determining the future of this country.
People’s lives may depend on it.
Travelling around Goma, you wouldn’t know it is nearly election time. There are no campaign posters to be seen. I am told this is because officially campaigns are only allowed to begin one month before the elections.
In contrast, in Kinshasa, the nation’s capital and the seat of the Presidency, there are enormous billboards outlining the achievements of the Kabila government and other banners declaring his ‘certain victory’ in November.
How ‘certain’ this victory is, however, is not as clear cut as Kabila’s supporters might like to present. Despite its decreasing popularity in certain areas, the Presidential party and its allies can probably still easily mobilise the largest number of votes.
In contrast, the three main opposition parties (although we should note that there are lots) are fractured and generally unwilling to cooperate with one another. However, two weeks ago, there was a meeting of two of these parties- the UNC (Union pour la nation congolaise) and the UPDS (Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social).
If the opposition is to have any hope of winning the elections, some kind of union between them would seem necessary. Although there is wide scepticism about whether these two parties will be able to reach any kind of agreement, it is not beyond the realms of possibility. This could have a very significant impact of the course of the elections so everyone is eager to find out whether any kind of deal has been struck.
The 2006 elections that saw the Kabila government begin a second term were under heavy scrutiny by the international community and were generally lauded as the first democratic elections the country has ever seen.
However, many people in DRC and much of the international community are warning that the 2011 elections will not run so smoothly (see this helpful report from the International Crisis Group). This is not merely pessimism. Preparations for the elections are well behind schedule, meaning the electoral monitoring committee was only formed a few months ago and is believed to be bias towards the ruling party and there were a number of delays resulting from legal wranglings about how the elections would be held.
In January, Kabila introduced a number of controversial changes to the constitution which increased the power of the president in different areas, including a move from proportional representation in a two-stage process to a one-stage outright majority process.
The government also then tried to pass a series of amendments to the electoral law which would greatly benefit the Presidential party. Interestingly, not all of the proposed amendments were passed, which should give us some hope that there is a functioning opposition in DRC.
Yet, at the same time we should note with concern that the electoral campaign has already been marked by the ruling party trying to stack the odds in its favour. We should also note that there have been a number of arrests of those speaking too critically of government, including for example journalists and members of the opposition.
This is a crucial time for the DRC. People here have seen what happened in Cote d’Ivoire and are concerned that they may see the DRC descend into violence too if the elections are not accepted as fair and transparent, regardless of who wins.
A number of international NGOs are calling for the elections to be postponed but, given that the constitutional mandate of the President ends in December, it seems unlikely that this will happen. The international community is pledging support for electoral monitoring, although markedly fewer than for the 2006 elections, and the Catholic Church is also preparing to be involved in monitoring at local level.
The people of Goma live next to a volcano. They build their houses out of wood, knowing that they will likely be destroyed the next time the volcano erupts and that it is cheaper and easier to rebuild a wooden house.
This seems like a rather bleak but apt metaphor for the whole country living with the threat of the upcoming electoral tensions. Much as the people of Goma accept the realities of living next to a volcano, the Congolese people seem to accept that there will be violence.
They do what they can to prepare for it but otherwise have to continue living their lives. After all, what else is there to do?