The 2006 and 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo show both the possibilities and limitations of democratic transitions in post-conflict countries, and the extent to which the international community can play a difference-making role.
The 2006 DRC elections were a remarkable achievement. They cost over $500 million and required a mass mobilization of international resources, from peacekeepers to election monitors to political confidence-building measures. Impressively, the elections had high turnout and were largely credited as being free and fair, and disparate and often suspicious players were convinced to abide by the results. A democratically elected leader became head of state for the first time in over four decades.
However, the aftermath of the elections shows the limitations of outside actors. Within months, the political process broke down. Jean Pierre-Bemba, the election runner-up, had to flee the country for his own safety, while Joseph Kabila, the victor, cracked down on dissent and was simultaneously unable to affect security sector reform or bring peace to the country’s volatile east. In addition, backsliding on electoral institutions rendered the follow-up 2011 elections a farce that was condemned by international observers.
What then to make of these events? Are elections worth the effort? Can they help bring about political reform and governmental legitimacy? These are questions for which the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo provides no easy answers.
II. 2006: Setting the Stage
It is important to stress at the outset how difficult a case the DRC presents for democratic reform. The country hadn’t had a free election since 1960. With a median age of scarcely 17, not only had most of its citizens not experienced an election, most of their parents had not either. The country was just emerging from the Second Congo War, which ran from 1998 to its “official” end in 2003, involved interventions by as many as nine of DRC’s neighbors, and led to the deaths of at least two and perhaps as many as five million people. Kofi Annan said elections in the country would pose “major logistical challenges, if not nightmares."
Even in less chaotic times, the DRC is unusually hard to govern. It is the world’s 11th largest country by area, but has very little infrastructure, particularly in the interior. Its population is peripheral, 80% rural, and divided among more than 200 ethnic groups. Poor infrastructure, widespread migration across borders, and thorny issues of ethnicity and citizenship make it difficult to conduct a census, let alone conduct voter registration. The last census was in 1981. Estimates vary wildly on how many people even live in the country.
After a series of ceasefires and fragile peace deals, the country finally approved a constitution by referendum in 2005, paving the way for elections in 2006. Even so, violence in the east had not fully subsided. Several large militia groups continued to be armed right up to, and even after, election day. Rwandan-backed militias controlled parts of North Kivu to a greater extent than the Congolese government. The Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia which had been flushed from Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, continued to fight to one day return and retake control of that country. There were also Mai Mai rebels and Uganda-backed militias in Ituri. A vast portion of the north-central part of the country had been controlled by the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC), including all of Equateur Province, the home of former Zairean President Mobutu. Even getting the major parties to be willing to participate in an election was a herculean task, to say nothing of organizing a secure, nation-wide poll in such a fraught security environment.
Also of concern were the quality of the candidates the Congolese had at their disposal. The incumbent, Joseph Kabila, was the son of the rebel-turned-President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had been assassinated in 2001. The younger Kabila had taken power at just age 29, and the constitution in fact had to be changed, lowering the minimum age of a Presidential candidate from 35 to 30, so that he could run. His primary competition, Jean-Pierre Bemba, had led the MLC and was dogged by accusations of crimes his militia had committed during the Second Congo War, including lurid accusations of systematic cannibalism and even that Bemba himself had eaten pygmies. Octogenarian politician Antoine Gizenga, who ended up getting 13% of the vote in the first round, was very much a regional candidate and was only able to carry his home province of Bandundu. And Étienne Tshisekedi, a respected, veteran opposition figure, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and three times briefly Prime Minister during the Mobutu years, ended up boycotting the vote entirely.
Winrich Kühne, Founding director of the German Center for International Peace Operations, has identified five key aspects of the electoral process that must be in place for a poll to be regarded as legitimate. They are:
- Effective voter registration
- Proper choice of electoral system
- A national election commission
- An electoral complaints commission
- Confidence-building measures
In effect, this means the voters are accounted for, the electoral system properly represents them, and the electoral machinery is unbiased. By these measures, was 2006 a success?
Voter registration seemed a daunting task at the onset. No one is sure how many people live in the DRC. Economic and political migration is common. Issues of ethnicity and citizenship, particularly in the east, mean the very question of who is Congolese is not always agreed upon.
However, Congo’s multi-layered issues of ethnicity and citizenship actually played into the hands of the voter registration effort. Registration went along smoothly, sometimes too smoothly, in both 2006 and 2011, as various ethnic and militia groups made sure to register everyone they could to increase their voting power and influence. (Sometimes they were overeager: Goma's registration numbers were 216% higher than expected in 2006.) Marginalized groups flocked to be registered, because the coveted voter ID cards granted them greater legitimacy as Congolese citizens.
Proper electoral process
A Goldilocks theorem applies to choosing a voter system. Too simple, and it risks disenfranchising groups or regions. Too complex, and the country’s inexperienced voters and nascent institutions can’t handle it.
Striking the right balance is always difficult. Kühne has noted that, in hindsight, the electoral system selected for the DRC seems unduly complicated for such a young democracy. Even experienced international electoral observers found it confusing. In addition to the Presidency, the DRC has a bicameral legislature, with one chamber elected by proportional representation and another with senators elected by provincial assemblies. While international observers focused largely on the Presidential polls, much of the real action took place at the provincial assemblies, which elect not only senators but also the powerful provincial governors. Here, wrote Tatiana Carayannis, the elections “were marked by such massive corruption that the senate roster is a list of the DRC’s rich and famous. Money and ethnic loyalties trumped party allegiance."
The Congolese, meanwhile, had to choose between 33 Presidential candidates and 267 political parties. 10,000 candidates ran for 500 parliamentary seats, and Congolese who had never taken part in an election before went to the polls with, as Kühne described it, “a package of voting materials almost as big as the weekend edition of the New York Times." Despite this, the vote was largely peaceful and turnout was high.
Independent electoral commission
The Independent Electoral Commission in 2006 performed admirably, though it did not entirely escape politicization. The selection of Apollinaire Malu Malu, a priest and an ethnic Nande from North Kivu, to head the commission — a position he would hold from 2003-2011 — sparked suspicion of state interference. But the Carter Center reported that IEC workers “took their responsibilities very seriously and worked diligently, throughout the night and in difficult conditions, to complete the counting process."
One of the many problems with the 2011 elections was that the IEC was replaced with a new Independent National Election Commission (CENI), which was headed by pastor Daniel Nogy Mulunda and was pilloried as being overly partial to Kabila and operationally opaque. In the Kivus, the CENI violated electoral law by refusing to share voter lists and was accused of manipulating the required accreditation period for observers. Due to funding cuts, it had fewer registration centers than in 2006 and at one point endured strikes in Ituri by registration workers demanding their pay. While it was established late, the CENI did eventually meet its constitutionally required deadlines, and the election process was conducted largely peacefully, but the Carter Center found that “serious irregularities” on election day undermined the Commission’s credibility.
Electoral complaints commission
A transparent and speedy electoral complaints commission is an institution of critical importance to the integrity of an election. In the DRC, the Supreme Court took this responsibility, the importance of which was emphasized when the Court's building in Kinshasa was set on fire on 21 November 2006 while the Court heard complaints of electoral malfeasance by Bemba supporters. By 2011, the Court was viewed with suspicion by most Congolese and was refusing to publish its own decisions on electoral issues. The failure to establish a durable electoral complaints process bodes ill for the future of Congolese democracy. The lack of an effective legal avenue to contest election fraud gives perpetrators greater impunity.
A critical role for outside actors was to convince the major players to participate, and here the international community performed impressively. While Étienne Tshisekedi’s party boycotted the vote (in the process likely ending any hope opposition leaders had of scoring a victory over Kabila), tireless international efforts helped persuade the Catholic bishops not to boycott, and convinced the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC) rebel group in Ituri to lay down arms right before the vote.
Most critical, however, would be efforts after the vote. With Bemba ominously unwilling to accept defeat, the African Union sent current and former heads of state including Jerry Rawlings and Denis Sassou-Nguesso, themselves former coup leaders, to persuade Bemba to abide by the results. Additionally, the EU sent its special envoy. Ultimately, Bemba was persuaded to accept the outcome. He was elected to the Senate and planned to lead the opposition from there, although subsequent events described below made this impossible.
III: 2006: The Elections
The election, which had been repeatedly delayed, finally took place on 30 July 2006. The 17,000-strong UN Peacekeeping Force MONUC (now MONUSCO) provided security before and after, while international organizations and states provided technical, logistical, and financial backing. On election day, 70% of MONUC was mobilized to provide security, while 40,000 domestic observers and 1,500 international observers oversaw the vote.
Kabila had been expected to coast to victory, but when the results were announced on 8 September, to the surprise of many he failed to cross the requisite 50% threshold to avoid a runoff, picking up 44.81% to 20.03% for Jean-Pierre Bemba, with the remained spread out over the other candidates. The runoff took place on 29 October, and weeks later Kabila was declared the winner with 58.05% of the vote. “Election day” turned into “election four months.”
It should not be understated how dangerous and destabilizing this period was. It is difficult to imagine any country, let alone one so fragile and newly removed from war, where a five week wait before hearing the results of an election, followed by a two month runoff campaign, followed by nearly one more month of waiting while the results were tabulated, would not create instability. Sporadic violence occurred throughout the country with each new preliminary announcement by the IEC, and the political climate became so tense that during the runoff neither candidate campaigned in person for fear of assassination. It is a testament to the desires of the Congolese people for democratic rule that the runoff vote itself was nonetheless a largely calm affair.
The final results demonstrated a significant east-west split, with the provinces of Equateur, Bas-Congo and the city ofKinshasa all supporting Bemba and the Kivus, Katanga and Orientale lining up behind Kabila. There are several competing theories for why regions voted as they did. The most obvious and reductive is that Swahiliphone easterners voted for the incumbent Kabila, an easterner, while Lingalaphone westerners voted against him in favor of Bemba. Another theory, advanced by Caryannis, is that, except for Bemba’s home province of Equateur and Kabila’s close ally Katanga, “in the first-round vote, Congolese voted overwhelmingly against those who ruled them during the war." Easterners who had endured foreign militias, warlordism, and the bloody incursions of the MLC craved security and so supported the government in Kinshasa, while the more peaceful and stable west of the country was more concerned with the moribund economy and voted for Bemba. This had implications for stability as well. The outcome put a government led by easterners in a capital far to the west, and the Kabila regime began to worry for its safety.
IV. 2006: THE Aftermath
The year 2006 ended promisingly with Bemba’s acceptance of the election results, but in 2007 things quickly went sour as the government moved harshly against dissent. The Kabila crackdown was unsurprising, given the weak nature of the government and its paranoia of being based in a capital city in a region of the country that had overwhelmingly voted against it. Kabila, undoubtedly mindful of the assassination of his father not five years earlier, conducted winner-take-all politics. Bemba was first in line. He arrived in Kinshasa in early 2007 refusing to disarm the 900-strong personal guard he’d possessed as a candidate, even though as a Senator he was not allowed to have one. The prospect of several hundred armed men in the employ of his top opponent roaming the streets of a sympathetic Kinshasa proved too much for Kabila to tolerate. In March of 2007, a three day street battle took place between 2,600 government soldiers, including some in tanks, and at least 400-500 members of Bemba’s guard. Both sides used heavy weapons. Bemba eventually took refuge in the South African embassy before fleeing to Portugal, while his overmatched partisans either hid with the UN or slipped across the river to Congo-Brazzaville. Bemba was subsequently indicted for war crimes relating to the MLC’s violent campaigns in Central African Republic and the DRC’s Ituri region during the Second Congo War. He is currently on trial at the Hague.
With Bemba out of the way, the government suppressed protesters from the BDK, a religious group based in Bas-Congo that had called for greater autonomy, killing as many as 200 people in the process, and used torture and intimidation against opposition leaders, journalists, and members of civil society in Equateur, Bemba’s home province. In Kinshasa, Bemba supporters were systematically harassed and intimidated.
Most depressingly for the international community, however, was the democratic backsliding that took place in the 2011 poll. As mentioned before, the reformed election commission came under heavy criticism for being overly partial to Kabila. Reports over over-registration of voters in the pro-Kabila east were widespread, while the International Crisis Group reported “political parties inactive and civil society marginalized." With Bemba at the Hague, Tshisekedi entered the race as the opposition standard-bearer, despite doubts about the credibility of the 2011 election process.
Kabila won again on a somewhat chaotic election day, but this time with widespread allegations of fraud. The Catholic bishops, who had nearly boycotted the 2006 poll, complained this time of “treachery, lies and terror,” and called on the election commission to correct “serious errors." The EU slammed the results as “deplorable” and the Carter Center announced they “lacked credibility,” with “serious irregularities, including the loss of nearly 2,000 polling station results in Kinshasa” and several Katanga provinces reporting “impossibly high rates of 99 to 100 percent voter turnout with all, or nearly all, votes going to incumbent President Joseph Kabila." The period for electoral complaints to the Supreme Court was also curtailed. Tshisekedi, refusing to accept the results, declared himself victor and attempted to hold his own swearing-in ceremony. This was disrupted by police, and Tshisekedi was placed under “informal house arrest."
In the meantime, the government continues to show an inability to even control its own territory, as the recent capture of Goma by the Rwanda- and Uganda-backed rebel group known as the M23 demonstrates. Widespread riots across the country in the aftermath of the M23 victory, and insinuations by the M23 leaders that they would march all the way to Kinshasa with the government’s beleaguered army providing little resistance, calls into question the legitimacy of the Kabila administration in the eyes of the Congolese people.
V. Was It Worth It?
It would be easy to dismiss the entire electoral process by pointing out that prior to the 2006 elections, the DRC had an undemocratic, corrupt Kabila-led government unable to fully control or administer its territory, and after two full election cycles and billions of dollars of international investment (including the cost of elections, aid, and peacekeepers), the DRC has the exact same thing. The long term impacts, however, may be more subtle.
The most obvious takeaway lesson from the DR Congo democratization process is that elections themselves are not a panacea, but, as Kühne puts it, “merely the first step in a long and difficult process." In many other post-conflict countries, the very act of holding a poll can be destabilizing and plunge the country back into war. Mercifully, this has not happened in the DRC. Even so, it's not enough to simply let people vote. In a country polarized by ethnic, sectarian, linguistic or tribal cleavages, Kühne has found that people will vote for their own identity group’s candidate to within a margin of less than 2%, resulting in majoritarian outcomes and giving ethnic minorities greater incentive to boycott or attempt to secede. Without a credibly apolitical legal system, it is in no one’s interest to accept defeat and let their opponent seize the reins of power. Without the establishment of durable, lasting institutions, democratic processes can be manipulated and exploited by incumbents, as the CENI’s record in the 2011 poll shows. And even if a government is democratically elected and internationally recognized, this won’t make much difference if it is unable to control or administer its territory.
The high and increasing costs of international efforts in DRC is another factor to consider. The 2006 elections cost $500 million, with 90% of the cost being funded by international donors. The 2011 elections were supposed to have cost $700 million, but donor fatigue and doubts about the election’s integrity tamped down donations. With the poll only half-funded, President Joseph Kabila opted to cancel the runoff to cut costs. In addition to this must be added the cost of UN peacekeepers, who were instrumental to providing security in both elections. MONUC’s budget in 2006 was already over $1 billion, and as of 2012 stands at $1.4 billion. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to offer a cost-benefit analysis of these investments, the high costs of administering and providing security for an election make it incumbent on those who favor an international role in post-conflict democratization efforts to demonstrate that it is worth doing.
On the other hand, the very experience of having an election can be important for its own sake. The Carter Center reported that the successful process during the 2006 elections bore “testimony to the accumulated experience of the many thousands of election workers over three democratic exercised held in less than a year." Tens of millions of Congolese now have experience in voting, tens of thousands have taken part in election monitoring, and many more contributed in some way to the campaign and the political process. This institutional democratic knowledge will endure.
In 2006, the international community put in enormous effort, both financial and in terms of manpower, to ensure a successful vote. It would be difficult to ask for more, and indeed it was too much to ask for even that much five years later. Despite this, it ultimately remains to be seen if the democratic experience gained by the Congolese citizenry from these two election cycles we be enough to overcome the immense security and political challenges the country still faces.
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