Observing Congo’s Election
November 7, 2006
On October 29, 2006, the citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) voted for only the second time since receiving their independence in 1960 – this time for provincial legislative candidates and to pick between President Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba in the presidential runoff. The final results will not be known for some time to come, but the election itself tells much about the current state of Congo’s politics. The problems are very great indeed, but the election gives some reason to hope for a brighter political future ahead.
I was fortunate enough to witness the election as a presidential election observer stationed in Kalemie, a dusty little town in Katanga province at the far eastern edge of the Congo. The DRC has one of the more difficult histories in Africa, and most of the 4 million killed by war-related causes during the recent six year civil war were in the east –
meaning that the war hit towns like Kalemie particularly hard.
On polling day, we drove 37 kilometers outside Kalemie to visit three polling stations in the interior, a trip that, because the road was relatively good by Congolese standards, took two hours each way. Congo’s interior, even in the relatively well-developed province of Katanga, is full of towns stranded because of impassable roads. Some Kalemie-area polling center officials had to leave days early in order to trek as far as 150 kilometers. Degraded infrastructure, from roads to railways to buildings, will be an enormous challenge for whichever presidential candidate eventually takes office.
In the interior, the lack of basic education was striking in comparison to what we found at polling centers we visited in the town. To prevent fraud, voters indicate on registration lists that they have voted as they leave the polling place, and in the rural locations, we found that page after page of these lists were filled in not with signatures but with the fingerprints of illiterate voters – we estimated as many as 80 percent.
The shortcomings of civic education also showed in the campaigning we witnessed. Even the average voter knows what needs to be done on the strategic level, so both presidential candidates’ platforms are essentially the same: economic development, unifying the country, improving infrastructure, and promoting peace. However, a national and local debate over how to accomplish those goals seemed almost absent to me. The posters and white cloth signs painted to promote candidates were obviously aimed at little more than increasing candidates’ name recognition. Voters’ uncertain knowledge about the process was sometimes painfully obvious, leading me to question whether poll workers at a couple of polling stations that we visited could have taken advantage of them, by, for example, sending illiterate voters over to political party witnesses for help in marking their ballots.
Minor violations like that were apparent several times, sometimes with the seeming complicity of election workers, and it was obvious to me that the rule of law in Congo has a way to go. One additional incident supported that observation: at the second to last polling station of the day, we encountered an angry crowd of about fifty people who had trapped some poll workers inside a polling station. Most members of the crowd were tens or even hundreds of kilometers from their registered polling station, meaning they would not be able to vote. It was unfortunate that they were unable to return home to vote, and perfectly understandable as well, in view of the difficulties of travel in the DRC. However, the electoral code requires that people vote where they are registered for good reason, and it was troubling that the protestors were unwilling to respect a requirement that is key to preventing fraud. The legacy of “might makes right” left over from the Congolese civil war will be around for a while to come.
On the whole, though, from what we saw, the electoral process in Kalemie functioned remarkably well, given the logistical difficulties and level of knowledge of both voters and poll workers. I was proud to see that most of the nine polling stations we visited conformed almost exactly to the intricate electoral procedures created to act as checks against fraud. While I personally witnessed some problems, what I saw did not seem to be systematic, or grave enough to influence the outcome of the presidential vote.
The most hopeful moment of my time as an election observer came during polling day, when I had a chance to talk with a man well-known and well-liked locally. He mentioned that, although many people had encouraged him to run for a provincial or national legislative seat, the timing hadn’t been right – but he was thinking about running the next time. His simple, unalloyed confidence that there would be a next time is a powerful testament of the changes beginning to take place in the minds of at least some Congolese.
Sophie Rutenbar served as an election observer in the DRC with the Carter Center. A former intern with the CSIS Africa Program, she has also been affiliated with the Center for Public Integrity. The views expressed in this essay are Ms. Rutenbar’s own and may not be attributed to the Carter Center.
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