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Election of the Day: The Democratic Republic of the Congo


In what I believe is the last major national election of 2023, voting has recently concluded in today’s election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The end of semester grading crunch has put me a bit behind schedule, so I haven’t prepared much here. The National Assembly is up for election today, as are many local governments and assemblies, but the main prize here is the presidency, where Felix Tshisekedi is running for re-election, after winning a narrow plurality victory in 2018. That victory was almost certainly fraudulent; independent analysis showed massive fraud and a likely convincing victory for the runner-up Martin Fayulu. Despite this, Tshisekedi (who himself was probably cheated out of a presidential victory in 2011) is generally viewed as likely to win, even without fraud, today.

This election comes in a period of violence and instability in the DRC, and millions of voters will not be able to participate because they reside in territories currently controlled by M23, the Rwanda-funded insurgency that is the primary source of instability in the DRC at the moment. In many ways the DRC’s decades of instability and civil war can be traced back to Rwanda’s genocide in 1994 and the spillover effects in the Northeast, and continues to this day. Rwanda, along with Uganda, justified military intervention in the mid-90’s in the name of hunting down rebel Hutu genocidaires who’d fled across the border as Tutsi armies finally ended the genocide and gained control of Rwanda ion June of 1994.

Upon taking power in early 2019, Tshisekedi made peace a priority and the early days of his presidency were some of the least violent the war-torn nation has seen in the last three decades. But that ended in early 2022, when the current M23 offensive began, plunging the Congo back into significant civil unrest.

The New York Times has a good election preview, worth reading in full for those interested:

Polling stations opened hours late in the capital, Kinshasa, leading to long lines and heated confrontations between voters and officials. In the northeastern town of Bunia, frustrated voters ransacked a polling station. By midmorning, the largest poll monitoring body, run by the Roman Catholic Church, reported violence at 8 percent of polling stations.

Populism and mud slinging dominated the monthlong campaign. Candidates stoked ethnic tensions with inflammatory language, or even threatened to declare war on neighboring countries. At least one person died in clashes between rival groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Yet many Congolese have been eager to vote. A frantic cacophony filled the broken streets of Kinshasa this week as rival campaigns made a last-minute push for votes. Music blared. Lines of motorbikes splashed through puddles. Bombast flowed, as did money.

“We are the victory before the victory,” declared Rovernick Kola, 29, a motorbike rider waiting to be paid $20 for driving in a convoy that waved posters of a parliamentary candidate.

Organizing an election in such a vast country would tax any bureaucracy — never mind in the world’s fifth-poorest country, with a population of about 100 million people, and some of Africa’s worst infrastructure.

To reach all of Congo’s 75,000 polling stations, the authorities sent Korean-made voting machines by boat on the Congo River, by plane across over 1,000 miles, and by foot into some of the world’s most impenetrable forests — a journey that can take three weeks, election observers say.

Ballots for 44 million registered voters were flown in from China, although the enduring conflict in eastern Congo meant at least 1.5 million people were not able to vote.

Voting cards have been a major problem. In Congo’s hot, humid climate, the ink on many cards issued earlier this year has rubbed off in recent weeks. One survey of Kinshasa residents this week found that 73 percent of their cards were illegible — a recipe for chaos that played out at the polls on Wednesday.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Tshisekedi whipped up anger against Rwanda, which he blames for the conflict in the east, and at a rally on Monday even threatened to declare war against Rwanda.

He sought to denigrate Mr. Katumbi, whose father was a Greek Jew, as an agent of foreign powers, and claimed that his opponent had paid Russian hackers to rig the election results.

Mr. Katumbi, for his part, slammed Mr. Tshisekedi for failing to deliver on promises to provide basic services to ordinary Congolese. And he criticized Mr. Tshisekedi for what he called his lavish lifestyle.

Election day hasn’t exactly been without incident, particularly in the East, but well short of widespread violence some have feared. It’s unclear any outcome of this election would change the underlying dire situation in the Congo in any meaningful way, from the regime’s inability to bring the M23 insurrection to a close to the deep underlying issues that plague governance in the Congo. The DRC has seen a degree of human suffering and misery unmatched in scope, scale and duration anywhere else in the 21st century, and there’s no particularly good reason to think any outcome from this election is likely to change their trajectory in a meaningful way.

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