The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will hold its long-awaited presidential election on 23 December 2018, over two years after the vote was initially scheduled to take place. Electoral campaigning is underway countrywide and is amid elevated fears of possible political violence.
Given the DRC’s violent political history and the elevated tensions ahead of the vote fueled by the constant delays in holding the election which was viewed as an attempt by President Joseph Kabila to retain power, some level of politically-motivated violence and protest are expected regardless of who wins the 23 December ballot.
Further fueling these tensions are concerns over the use of electrical voting machines for the first time. Opposition parties have raised fears that the automated machines and be rigged or tampered with to ensure a predetermined outcome without leaving the physical evidence of a paper trail provided by conventional voting. Furthermore, these machines are electrically powered and the DRC has a notoriously inconsistent power supply as well as widespread areas which are undersupplied, or even lack electricity supply. In addition, the use of these machines are legally dubious as they appear to violate the stipulations in DRC electoral law as it defines the voting process
The DRC government and authorities from the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI/Commission Électorale Nationale Indépendante) have claimed that the necessary contingencies have been made and that they are ready to hold the election. Yet, despite these assurances concerns remain as do doubts over the integrity of the voters roll.
In the election itself there are 21 candidates contesting for the presidency, however, there are three clear front-runners. The most likely candidate to win the presidency is former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Shadary is the candidate for the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD/Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie) and its coalition partner the Common Front for Congo (FCC/Front Commun Pour le Congo).
Shadary is a controversial figure who is currently under European Union (EU) sanctions due to his role in human rights abuses by the the DRC government. Shadary is also Kabila’s chosen successor and viewed as a proxy candidate for the incumbent president as he is a fierce Kabila loyalist and owes much of his political career and success to his association with Kabila. Accordingly, Shabary is likely to benefit from Kabila’s control over the state and the security forces and is the most likely beneficiary of any vote rigging which may occur. This fear is further compounded by the fact that rumours have begun circulating that Kabila intends to exploit a constitutional loophole seek reelection in 2023. If this is true the incumbent president is likely to abuse his power and control over state institutions and security forces and ensure that Shabary wins the vote in order to manage an interim transition before returning to power in the next election.
Shabary is also likely to benefit from the fact that the overarching opposition coalition was unable to hold together. This has resulted in two main opposition candidates contesting the election – Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu- thus splitting the opposition voter base.
Tshisekedi is the leader of the oldest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS/Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social), and is the son of the party’s founder and popular opposition leader, the late Etienne Tshisekedi, and as such has an entrenched support base among opposition voters.
Fayulu, a former oil executive, is the leader of the Commitment for Citizenship and Development (FAC/Coordonnateur des Forces Acquises au Changement). Although the FAC is a relatively minor political party in the DRC legislature Fayulu was selected as the consensus candidate of the major opposition coalition, Lamuka. Fayulu has a reputation for fiery rhetoric and has been endorsed former deputy president and alleged warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba and popular opposition figure Moise Katumbi – a successful businessman with strong support in Lubumbashi and the wider Katanga region.
In addition, Fayulu has recently dropped his opposition to the use of the electronic voting machines on condition that they only serve as printers and not the only means of registering a vote and that ballot papers are still used as the official means of voting as defined by DRC electoral law.
Given the concerns over the possibility of vote rigging, and the use of electronic voting machines potentially could lead to opposition protests ahead of the ballot. If such demonstrations occur, there is a strong possibility of violent clashes between protesters and security forces.
Following the election day itself, there is a strong possibility that accusations of voter fraud and rigging will emerge. There is also a strong likelihood that regardless of who the eventual winner is that the election results will be contested. In such an eventuality street protests in major urban areas is almost a certainty and will likely result in violent protests and clashes. There will also be pressure on the international observers to confirm or deny the existence and extent of voter fraud in the election. However, if the result is disputed it will likely go to the country’s Supreme Court which has a history of siding with Kabila on such matters increasing the possibility that Shabary will be sworn in as president in 2019.