Campaigning has officially begun for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) November 28th election, with eleven presidential candidates and over eighteen thousand parliamentary candidates vying for some thirty-two million votes.
The election, dubbed the DRC’s “ultimate test” by the International Crisis Group, will be the state’s second since the formal end of its brutal civil war in 2003. The first, in 2006, sustained the presidency of Joseph Kabila, who took the reigns of power un-elected when his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated five years earlier. The 2006 election, cited at the time as the most important in on the continent since Mandela won the South African Presidency, was marred by fatal clashes between rival groups of supporters, and claims that Kabila had won through corruption and intimidation.
This time around the stakes are even higher.
For if it passes off relatively smoothly and peacefully, this could be a historic milestone in the DRC’s long, hard road away from its violent past. On the other hand, ethnic and political violence or disputed results could pull the state further back into crisis, undoing the small, though tangible, steps towards stability made during recent years.
Ominously, the latter course is looking increasingly possible. A recent survey reveals huge discrepancies in voter registration, favouring Kabila; while human rights groups have expressed their concerns about hate speech from all candidates, exacerbating ethnic tensions. Many NGOs have called for a UN rapid reaction force to deal with potential flashpoints, in light of clashes between supporters of Kabila and his main rival, former Prime Minister Étienne Tshisekedi, which have already cost several lives.
With a vast number of militias continuing to operate, particularly in the East of the DRC, on-going abuses by the official army, the unprecedented murder of five aid workers at the beginning of October and Kambila long-suggesting that he would like to see UN peacekeepers leave, the election may potentially provide the spark that reignites wider conflict.
Still, foreign officials have warned against creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; arguing that writing off the election before people even start to vote would be a dangerous move. They are right of course, but this should not undermine the importance and urgency of the situation.
The UN peacekeeping force (MONUC) would be wise to head the calls for a rapid reaction force. They should also channel resources into ensuring that women can safely reach the polling stations; mass rape has become an abhorrent fixture in the DRC’s conflicts, leaving many understandably terrified of casting their votes in such a volatile climate.
There must also be clear political pressure from those states supporting the DRC economically, emphasising the need for presidential candidates in particular to abide be the electoral framework and tell their supporters in no uncertain terms that any violence or intimidation is unacceptable.
Beyond this the electoral authorities must be supported, by all sides as well as by the international community, in the huge logistical challenges that they face. Organising an election in a state the size of Western Europe, with some of the worst infrastructure in the world, will inevitably run into problems. It is critical that these are not allowed not boil over into accusations of foul play.
The people of the DRC have faced some of the worst and most prolonged suffering seen by any state in Africa. Next month might be a chance to move on. It will be the ultimate test for politicians domestically and around the world, to prevent it from becoming something even worse.