Reflections on Congo's elections

Guest blogger Jason K. Stearns, observing the elections in Bukavu, says that the elections went well in most areas, but violence and irregularities may tarnish the results in some areas.

By , Guest blogger

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    Electoral commission workers tally ballots at a polling station in the Bandal commune, one day after the country went to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov. 29. After an election marred by missing ballots and violence, officials extended voting to a second day Tuesday in an attempt to prevent further unrest in sub-Saharan Africa's largest nation.
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Elections have passed throughout most of the Congo - voters are now suspended in a weird limbo of several weeks as they wait for election results to be announced. Sitting in bars and living rooms, people in Bukavu send and receive dozens of text messages a day regarding the results seen outside voting offices and compilation centers - "Vital is ahead in 8 out of 32 centers in Goma!" "Tshisekedi takes a surprising lead in Beni territory!"
 
 I won't delve into too much speculation about the result yet. It is too early to do so; results just began trickling into the central compilation centers in Kinshasa yesterday. It looks like Tshisekedi did well, and that the race will be close, but beyond scattered results here and there, there is more speculation than anything else.

 
 So how did the voting go? The election was Janus-faced. On one hand, it was peaceful in most of the country, with what appeared to be relatively high turnout. I would wager that in 70-80% of polling stations, the elections went fairly well, even in many parts of Kinshasa. People I spoke with in Bukavu - and echoed by what my colleagues heard elsewhere in the country - were enthusiastic and highly motivated. I saw women queuing for hours in the sun with their infants, old men who had hobbled on their canes for miles to come to voting stations. Moving stuff.
 
 The other face of the elections was ugly. There were hundreds of cases of election irregularities, many of which could have probably been avoided through more meticulous preparation. The most frequent irregularities, which have been covered extensively in the press, are the following:

  • Many voters could not find their names on the polling stations, due to flaws in the electoral lists and misunderstandings about where they should vote. Although the election commission announced repeatedly that people could vote anywhere in their electoral district with a valid ID card, many voters were sent home or sent from station to station. This probably disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters (out of 30 million);
  • There were many dozens of accusations of ballot-stuffing across the country. Some of these incidents can be explained by misunderstandings as ballots ran out and new ballots had to be dispatched, leading some to think these ballots were for stuffing. In other cases, however, there seems to be little doubt that there was rigging, as marked ballots were found before polling began, in many cases outside of the chain of custody of the polling commission. In other cases, stuffing happened in front of witnesses. The arrival of 10 tons of ballots from South Africa in Lubumbashi and Kinshasa, which were then unloaded by military police, one day after elections had closed in most of the country did not help matters. It is unclear how many votes these kinds of irregularities might concern;
  • Frustrated voters attacked polling stations in many parts of the country, burning down dozens of stations in Kasai Occidental alone (reportedly 143 were either forced to close or burned down there). The frustrations stemmed from accusations of ballot-stuffing, long delays and incomplete lists. Some estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of people were not able to vote, but it is very difficult to pin numbers to these allegations for now;
  • In some areas, security forces interfered in the electoral process. In Kinshasa, the army took over security for polling stations from the police in some areas, while in Masisi (North Kivu) ex-CNDP soldiers reportedly forced thousands of voters to vote for their candidates. There were also reports of witnesses of political parties being chased out of polling stations by soldiers or police;

Given these irregularities, the question is: what next? Four presidential candidates - Kamerhe, Kengo, Mbusa and Bombole - are asking for elections to be canceled, but both the main opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi and the incumbent Joseph Kabila have said they will respect the results. Some foreign observations missions made statements today, outlining the above irregularities but not making any broader judgments.
 
 The reason that Tshisekedi and Kabila are going ahead with the process is clear: They both think they can win. Obviously, there will only be one president. So one will lose. What will his reaction be? Neither side appears ready to step down without a fight. Key questions for the coming days will be: Did political parties and civil society observers have enough people on the ground to carry out an independent tallying of votes? Will the compilation process - which is already fairly chaotic - be transparent? If Tshisekedi loses, how many people can he mobilize in the streets for how long? If Kabila loses, will he admit defeat or simulate a crisis to prevent a handover of power? In case of a crisis, what position will the army and police take?

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– Jason Stearns blogs about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region at Congo Siasa.

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