The Democratic Republic of Congo’s election commission will announce polling results today, an exercise that could very well kick off a spate of violence in this massive, fragile country.
Election observers have noted voting irregularities and “fraudulent manipulation” on a “massive scale” in the elections held Nov. 28. The ballot stuffing has been blatant, observers say, with ballot papers trucked in at the last minute and polling boxes carted off without independent verification or proper efforts to seal the boxes to prevent tampering. Initial tallies show that incumbent President Joseph Kabila has 46 percent compared with his main challenger Etienne Tshisekedi’s 36 percent, but given the composition of the electoral commission – the head of the mission is the personal pastor of President Kabila – such figures are treated with a certain amount of skepticism.
What happens next is a matter that rests in the hands of President Kabila, opposition leader Mr. Tshisekedi, and to a certain lesser extent, the international community. If Kabila and Tshisekedi continue to talk with each other through intermediaries, there is a chance to forestall any violence. If Kabila attempts to rush the process, have himself declared victor, and then calls out the Army to control opposition protests, then Congo risks a return to open conflict. If the international community – specifically, the United Nations, which maintains a 19,000 man peacekeeping force in Congo – endorses election results without listening to the concerns of the opposition, then their future credibility will be shot.
Adam Nossiter of The New York Times tells this human impact of this election by talking with the long lines of people – perhaps as many as 3,000 thus far – queuing up with their families to cross the Congo river from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the relative safety of Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo.
Mr. Nossiter also talks with election observers, who warn that the election irregularities could be on such a scale that they undermine credibility in any result announced today.
“The chain of custody is being broken, materials are just thrown into the back of trucks, there’s evidence of extremely large numbers of envelopes with vote-tally sheets that have been opened,” said David Pottie of the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter to promote human rights. “There are inconsistencies in the application of procedures — in some cases these are extremely serious, on a massive scale,” Mr. Pottie said.
But are these irregularities intentional? Kabila’s own vice president plays the “we’re a developing country” card and argues that any irregularities are just rookie mistakes in a country with bad infrastructure and poor education levels.
“Fraud means that there is a desire to cheat,” said the vice president, Jacques Djoli Eseng’Ekeli. “What I think is going on are irregularities of organization and logistics. This election is no more than a reflection of the difficulties of the state.”
On TV, Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege was among the first to point out the problem of ballot stuffing, and her colleague Azad Essa quoted a nightclub owner saying that “Kinshasa was not the place to be right now.”
But Essa also quoted an election observer from the National Democratic Institute, saying that violence is not inevitable.
“It is arrogant to assume that parties are not talking to each other," Anita Vandenveld, Country Director of National Democratic Institute (NDI), told Al Jazeera.
“No one I have spoken to, from any party has expressed any desire for violence, and the onset of violence would mean that talks have broken down,” she said.
In Russia, meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is recovering from a stinging rebuke to his ruling United Russia party, which held onto control of parliament with 50 percent of the vote, a drop from 64 percent in the previous elections.
Mr. Putin, who portrays himself in press photo opportunities as a man of the people and a man of action – practicing judo, scuba diving for artifacts, holding cute puppies – received some unaccustomed booing during the election campaign, and election observers say that his 50 percent apparent victory came with some pretty heavy rigging and manipulation.
The Telegraph’s Andrew Osborn writes that this election is a personal setback for Putin.
For Mr Putin, the election was personal. It was the first chance that ordinary Russians had been given to express their opinion since he announced he planned to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev and contest a presidential election in March. Now 59 and continuously in power as either president or prime minister since 2000, Mr Putin is not used to public rebukes. On the contrary, he is accustomed to being lauded in the style of a latter day Kremlin prince. Slushy songs have been penned in his honour, a skimpily clad fan club called “the Army of Putin” has emerged, a best-selling vodka brand has been named after him, and it sometimes seems that not a day goes by without state TV showing a fawning report about Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin stripped to the waist fishing and hunting, a stoic Putin swimming in an icy river, or a sensitive Putin listening to impoverished pensioners.
But Mr. Putin can take heart. He still had the strong support – 93.14 percent -- of the vote at Preobrazhensky Psychiatric Hospital, writes Bloomberg news agency’s Mark Whitehouse, and 93.06 percent at the Moscow Region Clinical Psychiatric Hospital. Surely, that’s some measure of comfort.