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The Electoral Dilemma

International Crisis Group | Published on May 05, 2011
Elections au Congo

Faced with the dilemma of respecting the constitutional deadline and organising botched elections, or ignoring that deadline and sliding into a situation of unconstitutional power, the Congolese authorities have chosen the first option.

Congo: The Electoral Dilemma, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the circumstances under which the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is preparing for its second set of democratic elections. Technical preparations are lagging. Neither the new electoral law, the voters list nor the budget are ready. Registration is already controversial, funding of the electoral cycle is incomplete, and the electoral calendar is problematic. President Joseph Kabila’s ruling party has launched its campaign before the official start of the electoral season, while the opposition is still struggling to find its “champion” for the presidential contest.

“Instead of signalling a consolidation of democracy, the elections present at best a logistical problem, at worst a new cause of destabilisation for a country still recovering from the wars that cost millions of lives at the end of the Mobutu era”, says Marc-André Lagrange, Crisis Group’s Senior Congo Analyst. 

Congolese politicians and the international community should anticipate now the very real possibility that the constitutional deadline cannot be met, despite the calendar the Electoral Commission recently released. Negotiating a transition agreement with the opposition, setting a deadline for organising the elections and limiting the business of government to routine matters during the transition would avoid having an unconstitutional postponement of the elections become a crisis of legitimacy.

Although the international community’s role is much more restricted in this electoral cycle than it was in 2006, when Congolese voted for the first time after the overthrow of Mobutu and the wars that followed, it should make clear to the political class that a deferred election would be better than a flawed one. Moreover, if the government does not take concrete steps to strengthen the electoral process, foreign partners should disengage so as not to lend it an aura of legitimacy.

The only way out of this Catch-22 situation is to both speed up preparations and negotiate an emergency electoral calendar and a political agreement to manage the postponement and consequent transition period that are likely to be necessary. More attention must also be paid to putting in place essential measures for transparency and inclusiveness, as well as a security system that will ultimately require important UN help.

In order not to become trapped in a biased process that could all too easily become as violent as that which Côte d’Ivoire recently experienced, the international community’s technical and financial assistance should be contingent on constant and precise monitoring of freedom to campaign, respect for political pluralism, political violence, access to state media, dialogue with the Congolese authorities and state funding for the Electoral Commission, as well as the opportunity for civil society groups to do their own monitoring of the process.

“The electoral dilemma the authorities face could spread to the streets, and if the present electoral calendar is not respected, the unconstitutional postponement of the vote will become a crisis of legitimacy”, says Central Africa Project Director Thierry Vircoulon. “While many bad features of the 2006 elections have disappeared, one remains the same: Congolese elections always pose a risk”.

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