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Congo election season in full swing, along with electoral problems

The Congo election season is fully underway, but voter registration fraud, delays in the legislative elections, and vote buying are just a few of things disrupting the election.

By Jason StearnsCongo Siasa / August 3, 2011

I have just returned from a three week trip to Central Africa – I promise to compensate for my prolonged absence from this space with copious postings.

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The electoral season is, of course, in full swing, as various political parties (UNC, MLC, PALU, UFC-Kengo, ADR-Mwamba) have held their congresses in Kinshasa. (I heartily recommend Alex Engwete's lively blog postings over the past two weeks on these events.) The last few weeks have seen a mixture of electoral ups and downs – on the one hand, the voter registration process has been marred by a series of alleged abuses, with accusations of children, "ghosts," and foreigners being registered across the country. My favorite story among these is that of a Cameroonian UN official whose visiting family had overstayed their visa by many months – instead of paying the fine, he simply decided to bribe electoral officials and get his wife and child registered as Congolese.

Other problems have arisen as well: the head of the electoral commission has not, as promised, named new officials to his commission to replace the workers who are affiliated with the ruling coalition. In addition, the timetable for the legislative elections seems to be slipping, as parliament and the electoral commission need to urgently pass an amendment to the election law presenting the new distribution of legislative seats in accordance with the voter registration figures (summary: Equateur gains 4 seats; Katanga and Bandundu gain 3; Maniema, Kasai Or and Kasai Occ gain 2; South Kivu remains the same; Kinshasa loses 7; North Kivu and Province Or lose 2; Bas-Congo loses 1 seat). There are now rumors that elections will have to be delayed until next year due to these delays.

On the other hand, candidates have recently been campaigning relatively freely. After initially facing stiff repression, Vital Kamerhe visited the Kivus in June to large crowds. Similarly, Etienne Tshisekedi has hold large rallies in Kinshasa and, just last Friday, in Lubumbashi. This is encouraging news.

But perhaps the most striking feature of this electoral season is the uncertainty. No one has a good, well-founded prediction for who will win the elections. As I have lamented again and again, there has not been any reliable polling in the country, although some unreliable polls have been published (their results largely an expression of their political bias). Each of the opposition candidates seems to believe they are the most popular, in particular Tshisekedi, who has at times presented himself as the sole legitimate opposition candidate and has come close to claiming victory already.

This uncertainty is setting the electoral cycle up for unrest. As civil society activist Donat Mbaya put it recently: "Tshisekedi said in an interview in Belgium that, whatever happens, Kabila won't win the election, and Kabila has said that whatever happens, he will win the election. In other words, neither candidate is prepared to admit defeat."

The straw polls I conducted in North and South Kivu are a testament to this uncertainty. Most of the people I spoke to were disappointed by Kabila, which is symptomatic of his unpopularity in parts of the conflict-ridden East. But many still believed that he would win, by hook or crook. Three main factors were mentioned.

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