What to watch for in Congolese elections

Guest blogger Laura Seay writes that today's elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo will carry the risk of violence if the election results are disputed, either by current President Kabila or main opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

By , Guest blogger

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    A Congolese woman casts her vote at a polling station in the Matonge district in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov. 28. Voting began Monday with delays and setbacks in this massive nation pummeled by war for an election that could further consolidate the country's peace or drag Congo back into conflict.
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Against all odds and amid pre-election violence that has killed several Kinois in the last two days and widespread reports that not all polling stations have ballots and other election materials, CENI (the Congolese electoral commission) has decided to go ahead with Monday's scheduled elections. Speaking in Kinshasa on Sunday evening, CENI head Daniel Ngoy Malunda (who also serves as President Joseph Kabila's personal pastor) said that his agency is 99% ready and that the elections will happen as scheduled. Never mind that the remaining 1% could mean that 600 or so polling stations lack the materials necessary to carry out an election.

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No one knows what is going to happen in this election; there were no scientific polls conducted and the exceptionally loud voices of much of the Congolese Diaspora (most of which is very pro-Tshisekedi) are making public opinion seem more skewed to the UDPS than it probably actually is. Jason Stearns (who is observing the election in Bukavu) has a helpful province-by-province breakdown of likely voting patterns, but as he notes, results will depend heavily on turnout and are too close to call at this point. A few things to watch for as results come in:

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  • Violence - As many as 10 are dead in Kinshasa, which is heavily opposed to Kabila and has a significant pro-Tshisekedi voting bloc. If violence happens Monday or in the days after the election, it will likely start in Kinshasa.
  • Tshisekedi's reaction - Tshisekedi was blocked from entering Kinshasa for several hours Saturday and was not allowed to hold a final campaign rally Sunday (the governor of Kinshasa banned all political rallies amid rising violence on Saturday). Tshisekedi has continued with strong rhetoric, and there's no telling what he might call for if there are significant irregularities or the perception thereof on Monday. Tshisekedi is almost openly daring the government to arrest him (he has, among other comments, called on his supporters to "terrorize" the government and declared himself president in recent weeks). Tshisekedi believes he has the victory and that the public is on his side; if he doesn't get a victory in this election, he and his supporters are unlikely to accept the results as legitimate.
  • The East - Kiswahili-speaking easterners were Kabila's main base of support in 2006, where he made extensive promises about improving the security situation and rebuilding infrastructure. While there is no question that both of these areas have improved somewhat in the last five years, Kabila can no longer count on voters there to have his back. DRC voters, especially in urban areas, are savvier this time around, and few are willing to take promises at face value anymore. As one Goma voter told Melanie Gouby, “We had no idea how to decide who to vote for during the 2006 elections. ...This time we know better. I won’t vote for someone because I was given a t-shirt, I want someone who will build the road, not just talk about it.” Such comments do not bode well for Kabila, whose campaign depends largely on promises of patronage.
  • Irregularities - Already, there are reports that several hundred thousand registered voters names do not appear on the rolls in Ituri and Idjwi. There are almost certainly also polling stations that have not yet received ballots. How CENI reacts when these reports arise - and whether voters feel their voices were heard - will be key determinants of whether protests happen and whether such protests turn violent.

– Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs at Texas in Africa.

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