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DRC Election Results Suggest a Rare Chance for Change

Civic action has been vital to reach a historic outcome, however, many challenges remain to achieve a genuine democratic transition.

CENI officials, shortly before the January 10, 2019, announcement of the DRC election results. (Photo: Radio Okapi)

On January 10, after several days of intense speculation, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Independent National Election Commission (CENI) declared Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late opposition doyen, Étienne Tshisekedi, the provisional winner of the country’s much-anticipated presidential election. This outcome came as a shock to many Congolese. While Tshisekedi and fellow opposition leader Martin Fayulu were widely seen as the leading candidates, the electoral environment was heavily tilted in favor of longtime leader Joseph’s Kabila identified successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Other popular opposition leaders were barred from running, the ruling party maintained a tight grip on all branches of government, the security services have been highly politicized, the Internet and several media agencies were shut down, more than a million voters in opposition strongholds were not allowed to vote, and even CENI was staffed by Kabila loyalists. Moreover, the government has not hesitated from using force against those seen as a threat to its rule. Since 2016, more than 2,000 Congolese protesters have been killed by security forces. An opposition victory, therefore, is indeed remarkable.

A Significant Moment

The DRC now stands at an inflection point potentially leading to the country’s first peaceful and popular transfer of power. While the final electoral results remain contested between the two leading opposition candidates, the outcome opens the door to an alternative to the status quo of a perpetual authoritarian state.

Perhaps the most important lesson leading to this result that gives voice to the popular call for change is that a coordinated civil society can make a major difference. Congolese civil society has its roots in the Catholic Church, which has an extensive reach at the grassroots level and has been central in delivering social services where the government has failed. When protests launched by political parties in response to Kabila’s failure to step aside in 2016 at the end of his second term dissipated, the influential National Episcopal Conference on Congo (CENCO) worked to sustained popular attention on the need for elections. Similarly, as prospects for a transparent process waned in the months leading to the polls, CENCO organized to deploy an observation mission, using experience it gained in monitoring and managing elections over the past two decades.

Perhaps the most important lesson … is that a coordinated civil society can make a major difference.

For the December 30 polls, CENCO deployed over 40,000 monitors and thousands more citizens to carry out other functions, including inspecting voting material and registers, comparing voter data with the rolls, and educating and assisting CENI workers. This massive team enabled CENCO to be present at a majority of the DRC’s 70,000 polling stations and maintain a “forensic” record of the poll. CENCO’s ability to generate an independent tally and its willingness to lead a movement to pressure the government not to tamper with the results made it exceedingly difficult for Kabila’s allies to install Shadary as the winner.

Congolese opposition parties should also be commended for maintaining a strategy of non-violence despite years of exclusion and frustration from multiple previous stolen elections. By doing so, the opposition kept viable a political path for a democratic transition. Since establishing a democratic system in post-conflict environments is especially challenging, by maintaining a non-violent stance, opposition leaders have created a more conducive political space for genuine democratic change.

Regional and international actors have also played a vital role during this electoral process to create an opportunity for a peaceful transition in the DRC. In the lead-up to the election multiple regional and international leaders questioned the prospective credibility of the outcome given the relative absence of outside election monitors, the limitations on independent media, and the heavy government influence in CENI. These expectations made it more difficult for the government to simply declare outright victory. In the days after the election, the African Union, European Union, and other key development partners, such as France, Belgium, and the United States, conveyed the message that CENI should not falsify the results. These calls were reinforced by a flurry of behind-the-scenes diplomatic initiatives undertaken by member countries of the Southern African Development Community to persuade Kabila to stand by his commitment to hand over power and act in a manner that respects the popular will. This is noteworthy as the African Union and regional leaders have not always upheld democratic norms when sitting leaders have resisted stepping down. The insistence by international partners for the release of accurate results played a significant role in bolstering the public’s demand for electoral integrity.

Just the Beginning

Elections are the starting point, not the culmination, of democratic transitions. While the opposition victory in the presidential and parliamentary results is historic, this does not translate into real change until the DRC’s democratic institutions, norms, and accountability systems are created. And this is far from assured. More than half of all democratic openings experience some backsliding in the initial years of a transition. In other words, the process of consolidating democratic change is fraught with pitfalls as the personal interests of political leaders, rearguard actions by entrenched interests, and monied interests from outside the country may all try and shape an outcome to their benefit – and derail genuine democratic change in the process.

It will be incumbent upon opposition leaders, therefore, to continue to work closely together as they did during the campaign if they are to reshape the Congo’s deeply dysfunctional institutions. Key among these are the security sector, the courts, media, CENI, and public procurement process that favor politically-aligned companies. Even with an opposition victory, these institutions will continue to be controlled by patronage networks linked to the Kabila government, until genuine reform is undertaken. The government’s claim that they have maintained a parliamentary majority despite the assessment by independent observers that opposition parties won handily, indicates that the Kabila government is not ready to willingly step aside.

It will be incumbent upon opposition leaders to continue to work closely together as they did during the campaign if they are to reshape the Congo’s deeply dysfunctional institutions.

Many Congolese are hoping that the two opposition allies will not squander a rare opportunity for fundamental reforms that could put Africa’s second largest country, and one of its most consequential, on a democratic trajectory. For meaningful reforms to take root, the opposition coalitions will be required to work together in the popular interest and avoid short-term calculations that could serve to undo their credibility, limit their ability to initiate deep reforms, and ultimately undermine the public’s confidence in their ability to lead. Ethical leadership that is inclusive and mindful of the need for consensus, reconciliation, and citizen-centered governance is indispensable in navigating nations away from crises.

Congolese citizens and civil society continue to have a vital role in shaping a democratic outcome. This will require ongoing and vigilant engagement in the transition process so as to ensure Congo’s newly elected leaders act on the behalf of citizens and sustain their push for reforms in what will be a long and difficult undertaking.

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