Are we prepared for elections?

In theory we are now ten months away from presidential and legislative elections in the Congo, and yet it seems that compared with 2006 there is a lack of urgency and commitment to the process.

We have yet to see the new electoral commission (CENI) inaugurated, as legislators are still bickering about its composition. The revision of the electoral roll is ongoing in the provinces, but there have been many complaints about the lack of registration sites where people can register.

Compared to 2006, when there was a large international mobilization to support and observe the country’s first multiparty elections in 40 years, from what I can see, there is little action among donors . The Carter Center apparently doesn’t have the funds to set up a long-term observation mission like the one they deployed in 2006. National Democratic Institute (NDI) no longer has an office in Kinshasa, as the US government, its usual donor, has not provided it with funding for this election cycle. Only Open Society Institute (OSI) is trying to see if they can help set up a civil society network to monitor elections, like the RENOSEC and ROPI did in 2006.

As for donor governments, things are pretty precarious. President Kabila asked for $350 million from donors, but I think has only received pledges for $70 million from the European Union/Belgium and $4 million for the US government (I think that money may actually be going to IFES for voter education).

MONUSCO has an electoral division; in their October report to the Secretary-General they said they would ask for an additional $40 million for support to the elections; and the mission has already been providing 2-3 planes a day to the CEI to transport equipment and material around the country. The head of the mission Roger Meese has said repeatedly that elections would be one of his main priorities. However, MONUSCO is also under a budget squeeze, so it may not be able to provide as much support as it would like to.

Admittedly, I don’t have all the information – please write in if you have more details about programs or funding to support the elections. In particular, the funding to the elections should be coordinated through the Projet d’Appui au Cycle Electorale (PACE) at the UNDP office in Kinshasa – I haven’t been able to find any more precise information about PACE’s current funding levels and programming.

Why this apparent lack of interest? Elections are not perceived as so fundamentally historic as in 2006, that is certain. Last time, elections were the culmination of the peace process, everything had been building up to that – and people desperately wanted to bring an end to the clumsy 4+1 power-sharing formula. By contrast, most donors are now in the throes of a financial crisis and the purse strings around the world are being tightened, as current debates in US Congress clearly show.

Also, the stakes of the elections appear lower to many. After all, what’s the worst thing that could happen if we don’t pay too much attention? Kabila might rig the elections, and many observers don’t think that  armed groups and political parties have enough power to stir up too much trouble if that happens. Will the mess that the Congo is be any worse with a rigged election – or any better if a dark horse like Kamerhe wins, potentially destabilizing the country?

Of course, not only is that kind of attitude morally dubious, but we should ask ourselves if the consequences of rigged elections would really be so mild – true, neither Kamerhe or Tshisekedi has an army, and it isn’t clear whether either could muster much popular unrest (although those pictures of the crowds going to meet Tshisekedi at the airport might indicate otherwise). But imagine a Congo in which the ruling party controls a large majority in all elected bodies, and not through an ungainly coalition that it has to bribe and coerce in order to get anything done, but – as it currently planned – a more hierarchical system with many fewer political parties.

The argument at the presidency is that such a PPRD-dominated landscape would allow them finally to get the job done, reform the state and promote development without being distracted by dozens of smaller parties and political lobbies. The problem with this argument is that there is little sign that the current government, even when it does have the ability, takes decisive steps towards meaningful reform – at least not in areas such as the security sector.

Is the current mal congolais due to the fragmentation of the political scene or something else, something that has less to do with electoral politics, but rather can be attributed to leadership and internal power dynamics within the upper stratum of decision-making? It seems that in areas such as impunity and security sector reform that the problem lies rather with the obsession with survival in a weak state, coupled the deep distrust in independent institutions – the reason that Gen. Gabriel Amisi, Gen. Olenga or Col. Zimurinda are not arrested followed accusations of corruption and abuse is that such action could prompt an insurgency within the army or a defection of the CNDP. The reason that Kabila’s former chief of staff is not fired after his actions lead to a deadly plane crash in Kinshasa is because benefits of disciplining him are seen to outweigh the disadvantages. We should remember that Kabila’s first lesson in office – delivered to him by his father’s demise – is that you can be easily stabbed in the back by those closest to you.

All this is to say that free elections may not bring development or prosperity – in fact, I doubt they will in the short run. But the alternative is not great, either. And the long-term prospect of reform will be much better in a state with multiple poles of power and wealth than in one dominated by a just a few interest groups.