Publication | Report/Paper

Elections in Congo: The Winding Road to Democracy



The Republic of Congo's transition to multi-party democracy began with the convening of a National Conference in March 1991 and reached a culmination on August 31, 1992 with the inauguration of President Pascal Lissouba. In between those two dates, the challenges of transition from a one-party centralized state to a pluralist democracy, especially when accompanied by economic restructuring, became painfully clear to the Congolese people. They saw the three branches of the transition government squabbling with each other to the point of near gridlock. They experienced a coup attempt and a military mutiny. They waited for months as the government struggled to organize multi-party elections. Through this year, the people of Congo went to the polls six times. They ratified a new constitution. They elected municipal and local leadership. They chose a national legislature from among 1700 candidates affiliated with dozens of political parties. Finally, in August 1992, two months past the deadline set by the National Conference 14 months before, they elected a president.


Elections were a crucial part of this transition to democracy. They were benchmarks along the way. They were the moments when all citizens could express their will regarding national direction and leadership. They also proved to be a tremendous challenge to organize well in Congo. The goal of any electoral system is to allow parties and candidates to campaign openly and freely, to effectively enfranchise all eligible voters, to guarantee the security and secrecy of each individual's vote, and to assure everyone that his or her vote will be counted without fraud or partisan manipulation. In the end, Congo attained that goal, with perseverance, with practice, and with assistance from external supporters.


The U.S. Embassy in Congo called on the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) four times during this period to provide assistance to the government of Congo in its task of preparing for and holding elections. IFES sent a pre-election assessment mission to Congo in October 1991, and sent election equipment in November of that year. In March, three election consultants provided guidance and recommendations to the government as Congo began its series of elections in earnest. Finally, in June and August 1992, IFES sent delegations to observe the legislative and presidential elections.


These observer delegations were recruited and briefed by IFES. Funding for their expenses came from the U.S. Agency for International Development (A.I.D.). They went to Congo as the American presence on a larger international team of election observers. Support in Brazzaville was provided by the U.S. Embassy. Coordinating their deployment in-country was the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Brazzaville. The UNDP also acted as the observer teams' liaison with the government of Congo: and presented the teams' findings to the government.


This report is a compilation of the observations of the American election observers who went to the legislative and presidential elections under the sponsorship of IFES. The bulk of this report consists of those observers' individual reports to IFES on their first-hand election-day observations in various regions of Congo. Their general findings and recommendations are also included.


The findings of the three IFES observer delegations can be summarized as follows:


1. The elections were free and fair by international standards at the observed grassroots level. Voting was secret, procedures fair and effective, and vote tallying reconciled openly and redundantly in the presence of party representatives. Given the administrative and logistical constraints in the Congo, the elections were remarkably efficient.


2. Problems remained through all the elections with compiling and maintaining accurate voters lists. Some legitimate voters were disenfranchised because of inaccuracies in the lists used at the local polling places. Similarly, some citizens were unable to vote because of the lack of a voter's card, or of a second form of identification. Constraints both administrative and logistical hindered the government's ability to distribute the necessary identification to all eligible voters.


3. The Congolese military were conspicuously visible at the polling places. Under an authorized mandate to maintain order, uniformed personnel screened voter documents and rejected those who did not qualify. Presidents of polling places followed a liberal practice of authorizing or not objecting to the presence of military personnel within the polling stations, possibly in contravention of Interior Ministry guidelines. However, the military presence was seen by the IFES observers as neither intimidating nor influential, but helpful. At the same time, reliance on a strong military presence at the polls is not considered advisable in future elections.


4. The use of multiple ballots was effective and efficient within the context of Congolese experience and practice.


The international observers were granted high visibility by the media in Congo. It is safe to say that a majority of Congolese were aware of their presence at the time of elections. It is more difficult to assess the impact of the observers' presence. It was the belief of the IFES observer delegations, and in this they echo the sentiments of the U.S. Embassy, that international observers, even in small numbers, played a perceptible role in reassuring the Congolese that their elections were credible and that the international community was cognizant of the challenges faced and successes attained by them in this transition ·period.  




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