Prospects for Free, Fair Elections in the Congo: Appraisal and Recommendations from the Referendum of March 15, 1992
As a follow up to a November 1991 pre-election assessment carried out by the International Foundation/or Electoral Systems (IFES), a second IFES team visited the Congo February 28 through March 20, 1992, to assess the March 15th Referendum operations and produce a guidebook for forthcoming municipal, legislative and presidential elections.
The IFES team consisted of a Beninois elections attorney and supervisor, a Canadian returning officer, and an American elections systems manager; an excellent combination of experience. The team e!ljoyed particular credibility because it included an African who participated in the successful elections in Benin last year.
The Congo held its first open election in thirty years, a Constitutional Referendum, on March 15, 1992, the first of a series of municipal, legislative and presidential elections to come. Although accusations of mismanagement and fraud were rampant, the IFES team instead observed a great many errors stemming from a general lack of experience and little or no training of election workers. Election workers exhibited general honesty and strong desire as well as ability to correct errors quickly at polling stations.
The IFES team was welcomed by officials of the Conseil Superieur de la Republique du Congo (the transitional legislature), the Prime Minister and Ministry of the Interior which administers elections, the President, and the international community. Technical suggestions were solicited and given openly and directly. Many, suggestions such as splitting large polling stations to process fewer voters at each and lessen delays, were acted upon quickly, and this led the IFES team to make a sweeping set of recommendations to overhaul the entire system to assure true secrecy of vote and fair elections practices.
It was also clearly demonstrated during the Referendum that the Congolese people earnestly want, indeed demand, change from the old repressive, single party system. They turned out in huge numbers, often over 90% in congested urban communes, and were willing to wait 3, 4, 5 hours, even all day, to cast their ballots.
The numerous political parties are often contentious and imagine calculated fraud where only honest error exists. They do not understand the full scope of their role in a democracy. It is hoped that their overall desire for change will control their unruliness and lead toward progress through education, collaboration and regrouping into a few strong coalitions.
The recommendations of the IFES team include:
the establishment of a permanent independent elections commission;
conversion to a single ballot system;
· cleanup, computerization, and alphabetization of registration lists with verifications linked to a national identity document;
· integration of legislative and presidential elections;
· revision of elections ballots and forms;
· improved ballot box construction and safety;
· simplification of election day voting and counting procedures;
· definition of police and army responsibilities;
· clarification of political party responsibilities and organization;
· clarification of the role of the government and the media in civic education;
refinement of absentee and proxy voting procedures; and
recommendations for the support of international elections observers.
Pivotal to these reforms is a further delay of elections until May and June 1992, while still completing them within the established one year transition period. Properly explained, the additional delay can be seen as an important improvement, not a failure of the democratic initiative or the transition government.
The IFES team was led to understand that at least some of its suggestions would be followed. If so, two additional support measures are recommended:
· Immediate provision of a team to train Congolese trainers of election workers for a month preceding the legislative and presidential elections; and
· Provision of a civic education expert to develop a broad-based civic education program with Congolese communications officials regarding the collaborative roles of government, political parties, private unions, the international community and the people in a democracy.