This is a guest post by Grant Godfrey, Program Director, National Democratic Institute (NDI)
In the months leading up to the December 30, 2018 presidential election, many Congolese would have reacted with both disbelief and joy to find out that Félix Tshisekedi would become the fifth president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as he did when he was sworn in on January 24. Few believed that Joseph Kabila would relinquish power voluntarily after 18 years, and that if he did, his chosen successor Emmanuel Shadary would still be accountable to Kabila in what was expected to be a “Putin-Medvedev scenario.” Instead, Kabila transferred power to the son of the man who personified political opposition and democratic resistance to many in DRC, Etienne Tshisekedi. While there was indeed jubilation that day in his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) strongholds of Kasaï and Limete, the peaceful transfer of power—the first since independence day in 1960—was greeted cautiously in many parts of Congo and in foreign capitals.
This hesitancy to embrace Tshisekedi stems from claims, supported by data published by the Congo Research Group, that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, actually won the election. The fact that Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) allies now control a majority of votes in the newly elected National Assembly gives another reason to pause. In addition, Kabila’s allies will control most provinces, and thus the governorships and national Senate, while their parliamentary majority also entitles them to the premiership. These results, at odds with both the FCC presidential performance and research leading up to the election that showed a strong public desire for change, could confirm for some Congolese their expectations that the elections would not be fairly run. This, and UDPS acknowledgements of transition talks before provisional figures were released, have led many Congolese and Congo-watchers to suspect that Tshisekedi attained the presidency through a corrupt bargain.
A number of Congolese democrats, including Tshisekedi’s former allies, and their allies around the world have accordingly raised their voices to protest his election. They have rightly demanded the CENI publish the election results by polling station and by counting center. Comparing these to results collected by political parties and civil society at polling station counts, would increase confidence in the announced vote totals, if warranted. Fayulu has said he considers himself the president-elect, called on Congolese to disregard presidential orders from Tshisekedi, and invoked Article 64 of the constitution, which calls on the population to resist the unconstitutional exercise of power. Should no leader be able to convincingly exercise power with legitimacy, some observers fear spreading unrest or even civil war. Others simply expect that Kabila, whose FCC majority in the legislature will have arguably more power than Tshisekedi, will continue to rule through proxies. Some Congolese wonder how, with his powers limited by the constitution, retaining only weak influence over the other institutions, and lacking a popular mandate, can Tshisekedi be expected to lead or govern the country?
The answer could be, paradoxically, to leverage the flaws of the December polls as an opportunity for reform, rather than seeking to minimize or dispute them. Major controversies included that the most popular candidates were not allowed to run; free assembly had essentially been banned since 2016; campaign activities were repressed; the voter roll had a suspicious concentration of unverified voters; the CENI used a controversial, poorly understood voting machine; and there were reports of voters being intimidated on election day. Moreover, legislative candidates, including in the FCC coalition, allege that the announced winners do not reflect the voters’ choices. The credibility of the election was thus contested before a single vote was cast, leaving any outcome vulnerable to the charge that competition was not free nor fair.
President Tshisekedi would therefore run a big risk if he seeks to reinforce his position by appealing to a popular mandate that may not be there. However, by treating December’s electoral event instead as a stumbling step in a transition out of authoritarianism, the president could gain an opportunity to recoup allies and enhance his legitimacy with the public. For example, an effort at comprehensive election reform could attract interest from Fayulu’s strongest backers, Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, both of whom were excluded from the presidential election. The president would need the mobilizing power of these leaders to get reforms through legislators who may be fearful of the impact on their future careers. It would also give the president leverage with the FCC, which many fear he presently lacks.
There is reason for optimism amid the uncertainty. In his inaugural speech, Tshisekedi signaled a desire to seize the moment, announcing he would identify and release political prisoners, begin a long-overdue national census and reform the election law. Despite Mr. Fayulu’s refusal to participate in a Tshisekedi government, elements of the Lamuka coalition have begun to at least recognize his presidency, though not his election. Civil society groups that dispute the validity of his election, such as CENCO and LUCHA, have indicated a willingness to do the same, and offer ideas for reform efforts. So, while the DRC’s 2018 poll may have been a flawed exercise in electoral democracy, it may have opened a window for the country’s ongoing transition to democracy to proceed.