The angry protests of Congolese exiles from Toronto to London over the past few days give just a small hint of the tensions currently building in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where the results of the state’s turbulent election will be released in the coming hours.
The outcome is already clear: with more than 90% of the votes counted, incumbent president Joseph Kabila, leads his closest rival Etienne Tshisekedi by 48%-34%. Now, supporters of Tshisekedi and his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) are crying foul play and threatening huge street protests when the result is formally announced.
They claim that Kabila orchestrated vote rigging, including the distribution of pre-marked ballot papers, whilst using violence to intimidate members of the opposition. Such accusations are, at least in part, backed up by various international bodies, including the EU whose observers cited serious irregularities during the voting; the Carter Centre, which highlighted forced voting and destroyed ballot papers; and Human Rights watch, which has attributed the majority of the eighteen election-related deaths confirmed so far to Kabila’s troops – urging him to reign them in and emphasising that “elections don’t give soldiers an excuse to randomly shoot at crowds.”
For his part Tshisekedi is still talking to the UN-backed mediation team and has stopped short of calling for his people to come out onto the streets, stating that he will accept any decision made at the ballot box, whichever way it goes. However, he is concurrently demanding a full breakdown of turnout and vote distribution from all sixty-three thousand polling stations; something that the government is currently unwilling to provide. The request itself is perfectly legitimate, but continued obstruction by Kabila’s authorities, or indeed the detail of any data released, may well stoke the anger felt by UDPS supporters.
With such a severe potential for unrest, some are welcoming the fact that the results have so-far been delayed for forty-eight hours, suggesting that the cooling period may in fact be beneficial and could potentially ease tensions. However, others have taken the opportunity to flee the DRC into the neighbouring Republic of Congo, before what they fear will be a slide into total chaos and a proliferation of the scenes that played out towards the end of the election campaign, when machete-wielding rivals clashed in the capital.
Both citizens and international observers are well aware that, as demonstrated in Kenya during 2007, elections can spark mass violence in even the most stable of states. For the DRC, which is less than a decade out of a brutal civil war that saw three million killed, and which experienced weeks of street battles and loss of life after its last election, the stakes are even higher.