In Congo Elections, More Than Just Democracy at Stake

The Democratic Republic of Congo has made important strides since its first-ever elections in 2006, but this week's vote could put it all at risk

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A Congolese volunteer watches ballot boxes in Kinshasa / AP

Though many polling stations lacked a fraction of the necessary ballots and serious pre-election violence broke out in several places, presidential and parliamentary elections took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday as scheduled. The campaign was highly contentious; the country is still struggling to recover from nearly two decades of violence, state failure, and general insecurity. The DRC's first democratic elections since independence, in 2006, garnered lots of international attention and financial support. The 2006 polls were also contentious, but they ran remarkably smoothly, especially considering the logistical challenges of holding an election in a country so large and with such weak infrastructure.

Things are harder this year. Donor governments, which have weaker economies and plummeting foreign aid budgets, gave Congolese authorities significantly less money to assist with logistics and transportation for this year's elections. Fewer international observers will monitor fewer polling places and counting centers. Several electoral rallies and protests have turned violent, local tensions are boiling over, and leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi is now openly calling on his supporters to "terrorize" the government. International observers are increasingly concerned that the elections could result in significant violence. These fears are well-founded and the international community has no viable plans in place to address the consequences if the worst occurs.

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Why should the international community care about Congo's elections, which look increasingly likely to be marred by violence? First and foremost, we should care because the DRC government's legitimacy is at stake. The Congolese government provides almost no public services or public goods, so elections and international recognition are among the few bases upon which its legitimacy rests. Many Congolese saw the 2006 elections as the international community's way of legitimating transitional president Joseph Kabila's rule. They are correct that most donor states wanted Kabila to be elected, but there is little reason to believe that Kabila did not honestly win in 2006. He had strong support in the eastern provinces, where almost all of the population supported him in the first and second round.

There were two reasons for Kabila's electoral success in the east in 2006 -- but they might not hold today. First, he ran on a platform of peace and development. Second, Kabila speaks Kiswahili, the lingua franca of the East, and ethno-linguistic voting patterns essentially determined the race.

Voters there have since become disillusioned by Kabila's failure to end the violence that plagues the region, and they have not seen the development gains he promised in the 2006 campaign. Faced with this knowledge, Kabila's party changed the country's constitution from a two-round, first-past-the-post system to a one-round, winner-takes-all system, which improves his odds at reelection. Since the opposition has failed to unite behind one candidate, it is likely that Kabila will win in this new system. While there is no reliable, systematic polling on the elections, most knowledgeable observers believe that Kabila will probably win with approximately 30 to 35 percent of the vote.

If he does, it could lead to disaster. Kabila's legitimacy as the winner will be immediately questioned, particularly by the population in Kinshasa, the capital and a major city in the country's west, where few people will know anyone who voted for Kabila. Western Congolese almost universally voted against Kabila in 2006. Today, rumors in the west run rampant that Kabila is "not really Congolese" -- his real mother, the rumor goes, is Rwandan, meaning that Kabila does not have a legitimate claim to the presidency. Yes, Congo has birthers, too.

The Democracy ReportMost members of the Congolese diaspora are stridently opposed to Kabila's rule and may use social media and other outlets to argue that he stole the election. That only a limited number of international observers are present to confirm or reject the election's validity could compound Kabila's potential legitimacy problem, as do the credible, widespread allegations of fraud in the voter registration process. Congolese voters have been watching the Arab Spring and the results produced by millions taking to the streets to protest perceived illegitimate or oppressive rule. Supporters of opposition candidates will probably not hesitate to attempt the same, though they would likely be met with a violent response. In the absolute worst-case scenario, it is unfortunately plausible that some groups could resort to attempting full-scale civil war.

Despite the ongoing troubles in the east, the DRC is more stable today than it was five years ago. Several militants groups have laid down their arms or integrated into the national army. While most people here still live in desperate poverty, there are small signs that the economy is strengthening. Transportation infrastructure is getting vastly better thanks to assistance from the Chinese government. With assistance from the European Union, health care infrastructure and access are improving. But, if the 2011 elections leads to violence, all of these gains are at risk, as is the stability of the entire region. It is critical that donor states develop a plan to ensure stability during and after the election campaign. The International Criminal Court prosecutor has already warned Congolese candidates that it is watching and will claim jurisdiction over any electoral violence. This is a good first step, but more significant security and stabilization plans are critically needed -- and soon.