(Bukavu, South Kivu DRC) –The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is scheduled to hold national elections in November. And though that is months away, there are already signs that the this volatile and conflict prone country may be headed toward a deep political crisis.
Elections in the DRC are one of several national elections taking place in the region in 2016 and 2017. The first elections in DRC since 1960 were held in 2006 with large-scale logistical and financial support from the international community. There were generally considered a monumental success, and there has been a bit of a downhill slide since then. The previous election, in 2011, were nationally led and saw some reports of fraud and violence. Eleven months before the election in 2011, the government changed the electoral law to scrap the second round, which gave the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, an enormous advantage in a field of 10 other presidential candidates. Still, despite forecasts to the contrary, the 2011 elections came and went without plunging the nation into “chaos” (a common trope in the history of Western perceptions of DR Congo).
The 2016 elections are different in that they mark the end of Kabila’s second of two constitutionally mandated terms as president. Other presidents in the region have explicitly finagled the alteration of constitutional term limits and/or electoral law to stay in power – referendums in Rwanda (elections scheduled for 2017) and the Republic of Congo (elections this year) resulted in votes to keep leaders in power; term limits in Uganda (elections this month) were done away with in 2005; and the president of Burundi simply announced that he would run for another term despite constitutional limits (elections were held recently, and sporadic political violence began soon after; the intensity and importance of which varies depending on who you ask).
Glissement into crisis?
Here in Bukavu, South Kivu, in DRC, murmurs of discontent can be heard with regard to upcoming DRC elections. People understand that the DRC, like other countries in the region, are being watched – and international support depends in large part on respecting constitutional mandates. But opposition parties and activists in DRC think that Kabila is trying to be more clever and surreptitious about staying in power by coming up with ways of delaying the elections scheduled for November – a strategy known as glissement (“slippage” in French).
The first of these strategies, people say, came over a year ago, in January 2015, when an electoral bill was proposed that required a national census be taken before elections could be held. Such a project would take years, keeping Kabila in power long after his term was supposed to be over. At least 30 people were killed in January 2015, in a crackdown on protests held against the bill in the capital, Kinshasa. The bill was eventually shelved. Another stumbling block is local and provincial elections, which were supposed to start in October 2015 and take place before national elections. The spokesman of the ruling party said that it would take “two to four more years to organise credible elections.”
Related to this is the issue of the revision of the voter register, as approximately 7 million new voters between the ages of 18 and 22 still need to be registered, according to a report commissioned by CENI, the national electoral commission. This has not yet started, however, and has caused delays in local and provincial elections. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for DRC said in January that Congo’s bilateral partners “are ready to support the revision of the voter register… It is a prerequisite [to elections]… time should not be wasted politicizing it.” The delays, however, have fueled opposition suspicions that the government is seeking administrative and technical strategies to delay the elections.
Right now, the two main glissement strategies people have been talking about in Bukavu are the claim that the government does not have enough money or resources to hold elections in November; and the government’s assertion that the DRC must complete a “national dialogue” before elections are held. Kabila called for this dialogue about three months ago, and CENI estimates it will cost over $1 billion. The president and pro-presidential majority see the dialogue as a necessary to stabilize relations and “avoid a crisis” before elections are held. In a way, this is understandable in a country with the deep-seated divisions that DRC has. However, like many people I’ve spoken with in Bukavu, opposition groups have come out against the dialogue, believing it is a ploy to delay the elections; and the BBC reported in December that “Activists believe violence would escalate if the election deadline is missed.” The top UN official in the country also said that the country is facing “very real risks of unrest and violence” over the issue of potentially delaying elections.
A Grounds Eye View
Opposition parties and civil society organizations have demanded that CENI publish a revised electoral calendar. Diplomats, however, from the African Union to the UN, have welcomed the national dialogue; ideally without causing a delay in the electoral calendar. But here in Bukavu ordinary people – bartenders, taxi drivers, and even ex-rebels – have told me in no uncertain terms that, whether knowingly or inadvertently, these international actors are simply buying into Kabila’s shenanigans and that a comprehensive dialogue will only result in a delay in the elections, which will cause those fed up with the status quo to react with political violence.
As for there not being enough money, people here have given me two main points of view. First, that the money is there – that the government has plenty of money from mining concessions and other income to pay for elections, but choose to pocket that money instead. Second, assuming that there is, in fact, not enough money, several people have told me that it is a matter of “sovereignty” – that the government wants to manage the elections without outside help or leadership. Which is also understandable, but, they say ,elections are more important. In essence, this camp says that the government should swallow its pride and accept more comprehensive assistance from the international community in order to ensure elections are held on time and take place freely and fairly.
Kabila himself has not commented on any of these accusations or suspicions. He and the presidential majority must be watching what’s happening in the region with other electoral processes, and they must be aware that a blatant or flagrant attempt to change the constitution would be met with condemnation from internationals, fierce opposition domestically, and perhaps even political violence.
But the Congolese citizenry appear to be on to him, whether these potential obstacles are indeed glissement strategies or not – and they are certainly widely perceived to be deliberate. So it’s unclear whether or not any of these proposed prerequisites to elections, or a delay in holding elections, will save Kabila from lack of legitimacy in the end – even if he does manage to hold on to power for a while.