Is the DRC heading for a chaotic election?

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Supporters of Union for Democracy and Social Progress {UDPS} gather to attend the launch of the first official day of campaign for the presidential election of December 20, by their leader Felix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 19, 2023. REUTERS/Benoit Nyemba

In the 63 years since gaining independence, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has experienced just one peaceful transition of power, following the 2019 victory of Felix Tshisekedi. As Tshisekedi seeks a second five-year presidential term in the upcoming elections, both within and outside the country, there is anticipation that these elections may signify another democratic transfer of power. With candidates actively engaging in campaigns to appeal to the 44 million eligible voters in Africa’s second-largest country, various critical issues come into focus.

The DRC, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, boasts abundant natural resources across its vast expanse, holding significant reserves of coltan, diamonds, cobalt, copper, and bauxite.

Despite its economic potential, the quality of life in the DRC has not seen substantial improvement for most citizens due to factors such as conflict, corruption, and historical governance issues dating back to the colonial era. Eastern DR Congo, where much of the mineral wealth is concentrated, has been embroiled in conflict for decades, leading to significant human loss.

Scheduled for December 20, these elections are crucial as they follow the peaceful transfer of power from former President Joseph Kabila to Tshisekedi in 2019, marking a significant step in organising elections amid political instability and historical coup attempts.

Among the 22 presidential candidates, key contenders include Martin Fayulu, the man believed by many observers to have been the rightful winner of the 2018 presidential election, Moise Katumbi, a wealthy businessman and former governor of Katanga province, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with rape survivors. The withdrawal of some candidates has consolidated support behind specific contenders, adding complexity to the electoral landscape.

Participating in the election entails substantial financial commitment, with candidates required to pay 160 million Congolese francs (approximately $60,000) in non-refundable application fees. While this is a reduction from previous elections, the financial barrier remains significant.

The electoral process involves a single-round voting system, where the candidate with the most votes becomes the president for a five-year term, renewable once. These elections also coincide with the selection of members for national and provincial parliaments and local councils.

The significance of this election is heightened by ongoing conflicts in the eastern provinces, economic and social crises, and a lack of trust between the government and opposition. Opposition parties allege electoral fraud, freedom restrictions, and a compromised democratic space, concerns shared by influential religious institutions.

The country faces a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine. Inflation has diminished the purchasing power of citizens, with two-thirds of the population now living below the poverty line.

The security situation, particularly in the eastern provinces, poses challenges to the electoral process, with rebel groups such as the M23, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Codeco continuing attacks. As a result of the violence, DR Congo has among the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Almost 6.9 million people are thought to have been forced to flee their homes since March 2022.

The electoral commission of DRC has faced criticism for its perceived lack of neutrality, impacting the credibility of the election. Its president, Denis Kadima, is seen as a good friend of Tshisekedi.

Opinion polling is rare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to poor roads and lack of electricity. Nevertheless, a survey conducted by GeoPoll Socio-Political Barometer in the second quarter of 2023 found that voters expressed significant discontent with the governance under Tshisekedi, assigning him a satisfaction rating of 49.7%. Despite this, the survey also suggested that Tshisekedi would secure a second term thanks in part to perceived improvements, such as his free education initiative, and partly due to a divided opposition.

The release of provisional results is expected on December 31, with the swearing-in of the new president scheduled for January 20.

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