Volatile Congo going to polls

President and parliament elections 28 November

Interview with Maria Eriksson Baaz

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo go to the polls on 28 November to choose a president and a parliament, in the second elections since long-term leader Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted in 1997. Conflict is still a major problem in the eastern regions and pre-election violence has raised fears of further tension in the already volatile country.

NAI researcher Maria Eriksson Baaz is currently in the province North Kivu. There she will conduct interviews with Congolese army staff for a Sida funded research project on the interplay between external and national actors in military reform efforts. We asked her about the significance of the elections.

–  From the perspective of democratic transformation the significance is limited. Also, this aspect has already been undermined through the revision of the constitution earlier this year from a two-round to a one-round system and the various problems already observed in the registration of voters. Most believe that Joseph Kabila will succeed in his tactics and win again. Given the high number of candidates, some candidates probably supported by Kabila to divide the votes, a possible scenario is that Kabila wins with as little as, say 30 percent of total votes. Some are worried that these prospects of a weak electoral legitimacy will lead to increased instability in the coming years. However, while increasing instability is a possible outcome in such a scenario, it is not necessarily the case. Succeeding in his tactics can also symbolically more firmly install him as the strong man in power and will surely be accompanied with increasing authoritarianism and shrinking space for critical opposition.

– By contrast, the postponed local elections resisted by the regime, would be important in terms of democratic development. It is mainly here – at the local levels – that people have the possibility to exert influence over political and other leaders. Even now, without elections, there are various positive examples of how the population in different areas, often through the work on local NGOs, put pressure on local leaders to improve their situation in areas of taxation, administrative fees, security etcetera.  

What are the security risks connected to the elections?
– In one sense the greatest immediate security risk is if Kabila would lose since he, in contrast to the previous elections, is the only candidate that has access to armed troops. Would he accept a possible defeat? There are reasons to doubt that.   At the same time, even if the opposition candidates do not have ready access to armed units, they can of course mobilize supporters to contest elections results in a way that would be difficult to contain by the state security forces, by legitimate means at least. Recent statements, particularly by the opposition leader Etienne Thisekedi, point to a radicalizing of the tone of the electoral campaign of the divided opposition. If this continues, it does of course increase the risk of violence and insecurity.

– There is a great deal of malcontent and frustration out there linked to the lack of improvements in living conditions that could be tapped and mobilized. At the same time, the widespread poverty and the fact that most people live day by day, makes it difficult to engage in more long-term consistent political protests.

– Irrespective of the outcome of the elections, the greatest security problems for people are the long term threats related to the highly problematic and fragile military integration process, particularly in the East.  

For more information on recent developments in the electoral campaign see the blog Congo Siasa.


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