Eleven candidates will vie for president and nearly 19,000 will run for the National Assembly in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday in a potential milestone for the country’s democratic progress.
Unlike the last elections in the central African nation in 2006, which were overseen by the United Nations and other international observers, this time the country is on its own putting its political and civil players in a new situation—for better or worse.
“The political opposition doesn’t have as much protection from the international community, as it did before. It is as though they have been left to themselves this time. These elections will be more like the reality,” said Dave Peterson, senior director for the Africa program of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in a telephone interview en route to the DRC.
Others see positive signs in this realty and say the country is on the right track.
“We see incredible efforts that have been made to ensure the smooth election process. This is huge change and its speed is accelerating,” said Mariya Nedelcheva, member of the European Parliament and chief of EU Election Observation Mission in the DRC.
According to Nedelcheva, a good example of this was that on Nov. 14, when the two main presidential rivals both held rallies in Goma, with no incidents.
“I think this surprised many people,” said the MEP.
The two main presidential candidates are incumbent President Joseph Kabila, who has been ruling the country since his father was assassinated in 2001, and Etienne Tshisekedi, the main opposition leader and historic opponent from 2006. The third leading candidate is Vital Kamerhe, who had served under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who served before the senior Kabila.
The vote is expected to be a close one with Kabila saying he expects to win, and Tshisekedi already publically declaring his victory.
The 2006 poll was the country’s first multiparty vote in nearly four decades and it followed a protracted and nasty civil war. The war ended when dictator Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph took over and has ruled ever since. Joseph Kabila began the process of reconciliation leading to the elections in 2006.
Although some irregularities were noted, overall the election five years ago was deemed by observers to be a fair and accurate reflection of the will of Congolese voters.
“[The elections] have met their major objectives of re-establishing legitimate government in the DRC and contributing to durable peace,” concluded a report by the U.K. Department for International Development.
This year’s vote has met with some obstacles. The 186,000 ballot boxes and more than 64 million ballot papers for 63,865 polling stations only arrived by Friday. They still need to be distributed across 906,000 square miles of territory. The DRC, the second largest country in Africa and has 32 million registered voters out of population of 71.7 million people.
Apart from logistical and technical challenges, Congo’s National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) has also been accused having ghost polling stations—stations with registered voters but nowhere to vote.
Apart from that, some have expressed fear that President Kabila might manipulate the election if he loses since he controls the money and the secret service.
“This is the only way the incumbent president can win. Otherwise the opposition will win,” said Fidel Bafilemba, field research consultant in DRC for the Enough Project, a project under the Center for American Progress. The project’s goal is to help prevent genocides and crimes against humanity before they happen.
“Unfortunately, in some areas we have information that people have been paid money in order to vote for Kabila,” he said.
Bafilemba says Kabila has had enough time to demonstrate his abilities and has never delivered what he promised.
“It is time for him to step down and leave, and hand this country to others. People are fed up with this,” concluded Bafilemba.This frustration might escalate to violence, say experts, if there are widespread reports of fraud, if CENI is suspected of bias toward Kabila, or if people are unhappy that their candidate did not win. However, it is more likely that the violence would erupt on Dec. 6 when the results are announced rather than on Election Day.
In a report from Nov. 24, Reporters without Borders raised alarms about attacks on journalists, citing repeated closures of news outlets, and media being used as propaganda tools, “thereby heightening the tension in a climate that has already worsened dramatically in recent weeks.”