by Otito Greg-Obi*
On Wednesday, August 8, 2018, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced that President Joseph Kabila will not be running during the country’s highly anticipated elections set for December 23, 2018. This pivotal announcement marks a key opportunity to implement the Saint-Sylvestre agreement by holding competitive and credible elections and promoting democratic transition in the country.
A week prior to the announcement that Kabila will not run, Senator Christopher Coons (D-Del.) hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss electoral preparations in the DRC. The discussion was moderated by Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, deputy program director at International Crisis Group. Panelists included Laurie Cooper, deputy director for Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); Sasha Lezhnev, deputy director of policy at the Enough Project; and Mvemba Dizolele, professor of African studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In the opening remarks, Senator Coons noted the importance of fostering development in the DRC, protecting human rights, and allowing the Congolese people to determine for themselves who should run in the upcoming elections.
Mvemba Dizolele discussed challenges regarding the voter register. He stated that out of the 41 million people registered to vote, 16.6 percent did not have their fingerprints recorded when registered and 7.4 percent had partial fingerprints recorded. Dizolele spoke about high tensions and political parties’ grievances with electoral stakeholders. Additionally, he noted the controversy surrounding electronic voting machines and the need for credibility in the electoral process.
Laurie Cooper described the uphill battle to restore the trust of the public and political groups and emphasized the importance of allowing political groups to campaign freely. Given the security challenges in the region, it will also be necessary to engage in electoral violence prevention and to provide security for every candidate. Cooper explained that this is a challenge because requires rapid mobilization and strategic allocation of resources — but it is not impossible. She noted the advantages of early warning systems to detect at-risk activities and hotspots as campaigning ramps up. She also cautioned that there is a fine line between emphasizing security and further closing the political space available to candidates. As a result, it will be crucial to find a balance between these competing priorities throughout the electoral process.
Sasha Lezhnev reflected on the reasons for past delays in the electoral calendar. He argued that the main reason for past delays and the lack of political will for democratic transition relates to financial incentives provided by natural resource business deals and profits. Leznehv stated that Kabila must make a number of key decisions, including: whether to allow freedom of assembly for civil society, whether to implement key provisions such as dropping political charges in order to allow people to register and how to address the issues and vulnerabilities of the electronic voter machines. Lezhnev advised that the United States government and United Nations engage proactively in their political and diplomatic efforts to increase the integrity of the process.
Despite the many challenges that lay ahead, there are a number of interventions that electoral stakeholders can implement to support timely free and fair elections in the DRC. From February 29 to March 9, 2018, IFES and its Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening partners, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, conducted an assessment of electoral preparations in the DRC. The assessment offers in-depth technical analysis and key recommendations for improvements in the electoral process.
*Otito Greg-Obi is a program associate with IFES' Africa division.