November 28th 2011 will be a very significant day in the lives of the citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): for only the second time in their 50years of independence, they will be able to take part in free and fair elections. For more than 30 years, the country was ruled by the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, who prioritised lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends; there was turmoil in the country following his overthrow in 1997 and much of the country was engulfed in conflict until 2006, when the first elections were held. Conflict still persists in Eastern Congo and many tens of thousands of people live in fear of armed militia active along the borders with Congo’s neighbours.
Elections in the DRC are no mean feat to accomplish. The country is vast and the infrastructure is almost non-existent. Much of the travel and movement of goods in the interior of the country is by river, but a journey from Kisangani in the East to Kinshasa, the capital can take up to three weeks to complete. This is fine if you are not in a hurry, but for the rapid distribution of voting cards or for bringing them together for counting as soon after voting is completed, it is not much use. For the coming elections, there are around 32million registered voters who will be casting their ballots in around 62,000 polling stations. Ballot boxes and voting cards have to be distributed by plane and helicopter to make sure that everything is in place in good time – a task which only the UN has the resources available to achieve.
When votes come to be cast it will be ethnic and regional loyalties that hold sway over party policies. In a country where internal communications are so poor, it is unsurprising that candidates will expect to receive most support from their home areas. A candidate coming from Goma, in the east, is unlikely to be known – or trusted – in the west or the south for example. Adult literacy across the country is very low and voters are unlikely to be able to find out about candidates who are not “home grown” or who come to talk to them directly – there have been outbreaks of violence at some political rallies and so candidates do not risk venturing outside “safe” canvassing territory. Local level politics is going to be much more significant in the electorate’s choice than national issues which they know little about. There are 11 candidates standing for President, though only 3 are seen as serious contenders. The victor will be the first past the post in a single round of voting – it had originally been planned to have a 2nd round of voting, a run-off between the two candidates who had secured the most support. However, the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, changed the electoral law after the turmoil following the elections in Côte d’Ivoire last year. The stated intention is to reduce the risk of violence breaking out, but it inevitably gives him a clear advantage.
There are however, some institutions that do have national reach and appeal, namely the churches and CAFOD’s partner in the DRC, the Catholic Church, is a major player in the elections. Following a strictly non-partisan approach, the national Justice and Peace Commission has undertaken to train and deploy more than 30,000 observers to monitor the voting on the 28th and to report back any irregularities. No other organisation comes anywhere near in terms of commitment: the whole of the EU can manage to send fewer than 150 observers this time around (compared to 600 in 2006) and when these are spread around the 60,000 voting stations their ability to ensure a free and fair process will be minimal. On a recent visit to Europe, a delegation from the DRC Catholic Church was pleading with European governments to deploy more observers, but to no avail. The delegation was concerned that, as polling day draws closer, there will be an upsurge in the levels of violence and intimidation and that the few small steps that have been taken on the road to democracy over the past few years will be undone.
No-one expects the November 28th elections to bring an immediate end to the host of challenges that DRC is facing, but they will lay down a marker for the state of the nation over the next 5 years. If serious violence can be avoided and if the whole process is seen as reasonably free and fair and the results are accepted, then the stage will be set for further improvements in key areas such as economic development and security sector reform. Anything other than this and the country is likely to be plunged into internecine conflict and rampant pillaging of the natural resources. The Church in the DRC as well as a handful of other civil society organisations are trying desperately to ensure that this doesn’t happen – a daunting but not impossible task.