On December 20, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is holding its first elections since the peaceful — but contested — transfer of power in 2019 from former President Joseph Kabila to current President Felix Tshisekedi. The elections come amid a climate of instability throughout the country, underpinned by conflict in the eastern regions, economic and social crises, and mistrust between the government and opposition. USIP’s Wapoenje Dacruz Evora and Elizabeth Murray examine the major candidates and the issues most important to voters, the risk for violence during the electoral process, and whether free and fair elections are possible given the mass displacement of civilians in the eastern DRC.

A woman casts her ballot during presidential and legislative elections in Walikale, Democratic Republic of the Congo. November 28, 2011. (Sylvain Liechti/ MONUSCO)
A woman casts her ballot during presidential and legislative elections in Walikale, Democratic Republic of the Congo. November 28, 2011. (Sylvain Liechti/ MONUSCO)

What’s the situation in DRC at the moment, and how might we see violence and instability play out in the electoral process? Are there any lessons from past elections?

Dacruz Evora: This year’s elections are being held amid ongoing violent conflicts between the national armed forces and several armed groups. At the moment, the violence is most acutely felt in the two eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, where the government has enforced a “state of siege” since May 2021.

In those regions, a number of armed groups have posed immense threats to civilians. The strongest armed group is the M23, which occupies significant territory in the North Kivu province and allegedly receives backing from neighboring Rwanda. Meanwhile, both the CODECO — a loose association of ethnic Lendu militias — and the lesser-understood Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) pose significant threats to civilians as well. Additionally, the FDLR, an armed group that includes former senior officials of the genocide against the Tutsi in neighboring Rwanda, is also active in the eastern DRC. This group has committed violence against civilians, and there have been accusations of collaboration between the FDLR and the DRC armed forces.

As a result of the insecurity caused by disparate armed groups, over a million citizens in eastern DRC have been left without a voter's card. And it’s likely that even people with voter registration cards will be unable to vote in the affected areas. Opposition parties have alleged this makes the playing ground uneven — especially amid increased repression from the current government over the past six months.

The country’s national electoral commission (CENI) has also faced criticism that its leadership is biased in favor of the ruling party. In many regions, CENI electoral agents have been accused of preventing people from registering on questionable grounds or extorting money from voters in exchange for registration, resulting in violent disputes.

These multiple challenges increase the risk of unrest during this current electoral period, just like past elections in the DRC, which have been marked by armed conflict, insecurity and political tensions over the contestation of election results following widespread irregularities.

Who are the major candidates, and what issues has the election focused on? Given the current political tensions, are there concerns that the elections might spark new violence?

Murray: The incumbent, President Félix Tshisekedi, is a leading candidate as he seeks a second five-year term. Among the more than 20 opposition candidates, two have emerged as serious contenders: Martin Fayulu, a former oil executive and the unity opposition candidate in the contested 2018 elections, and Moïse Katumbi, a businessman and former governor of Katanga province who was barred from registering as a candidate in 2018.

Three other noteworthy candidates are Nobel Peace Prize-winning gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege, former banker and current civil society leader Floribert Anzuluni, and pastor Aggrey Ngalasi.

Women represent 52 percent of the population and are key leaders in popular movements but remain underrepresented in both elected office (only 10 percent of the National Assembly and Senate are women) and ministry positions. There are only two women currently running for president:Marie-Josée Ifoku Mputa and Joëlle Bile, the latter of whom is running as the candidate of hope for women and young people.  

Campaigning has focused on security — which has deteriorated over the past five years — as well as corruption and exploitation of mineral resources. The DRC is rich in mineral resources, particularly coltan, but wealth from mineral resources has not positively impacted the general population, the majority of which lives in poverty. Global inflation has further limited the purchasing power of Congolese. Unemployment is high, particularly among youth, who constitute 60 percent of the population. Unemployment and the economy are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds when they go to the polls on December 20.

There are concerns that the election might spark violence. The stakes of this one-round election are high, as the candidate who wins the plurality of the vote will be declared the winner. Voter frustration is also high, given voters’ difficulties with registering, receiving voter cards and accessing polls (particularly in the East). Meanwhile, the national security sector has violently cracked down on protests and demonstrations this year, leading to fears that the same could happen again in the post-election period.

Several candidates have employed xenophobic terms or disinformation to advance their own agendas, further raising risks of violence. The media environment in the DRC (and the broader region) — in which media owners pursue their own interests — coupled with the ease of sharing false information on social media facilitates disinformation, often targeting ethnic or political groups.

Is it possible to have free and fair elections considering millions have been displaced in the eastern part of the country? How can election officials ensure that displaced persons are able to vote?

Dacruz Evora: The efforts of CENI and the inclusive and participatory nature of the electoral process must be recognized. There are some 43 million registered voters, more than in previous elections, and roughly 100,000 total candidates for various offices. These figures demonstrate the enthusiasm and increased expectations of the Congolese people.

Securing free and fair elections in the DRC, particularly in areas affected by displacement and conflict, is a significant challenge. The displacement of millions of people in the eastern part of the country may hinder people's ability to participate in the electoral process. CENCO, which represents the Catholic Church, and the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC), which represents 95 Protestant communities, have both expressed their concerns about the preparation process for the elections and the potential inability of many citizens to vote. Together, CENCO and ECC anticipate deploying a mission of thousands of electoral observers. The findings from this mission will be important to the overall credibility of the elections.

In addition to religious leaders, young people have been mobilizing to defend democracy, government accountability and peace throughout the country. Notable civil society organizations include LUCHA, a nonviolent, nonpartisan civil society youth movement founded in June 2012 in Goma. Lucha has mobilized a massive campaign, with tens of thousands of young members deployed across the country, to ensure that the vote will be credible, free and secure by registering voters in rural areas, informing people about local candidates and monitoring polling sites for any signs of violence, fraud or voter intimidation.

In spite of these efforts, there are many people who are unlikely to participate in the elections. The number of internally displaced people recently reached 6.9 million, the highest figure ever recorded. Many of the displaced have directed their anger at a government they believe has forgotten them and has failed to establish a realistic and feasible procedure for them to register to vote from the refugee camps. In previous elections, people with disabilities, the elderly and the illiterate encountered difficulties voting as well. These concerns are likely to continue in the December 20 elections.

How can the international community help prevent political and electoral violence in the DRC?

Murray: In order to strengthen CENI's capacity to facilitate international and domestic observation missions — including from large and respected religious organizations — international and multilateral partners should increase their logistical support to facilitate access to election materials, the movement of election staff and access to results.

Unfortunately, the European Union’s decision to cancel its observer mission due to security concerns eliminates one of the main avenues through which the international community planned to support free and fair elections in the DRC. But citizen groups and other parts of civil society will play an important observation role and their voices should be elevated.

Since disinformation is rife in the country, and is only increasing as the elections approach, it is important to support civil society and independent media in the creation of unbiased content. Programs to support citizens in detecting misinformation are also useful. In the case of a contested election, international actors can play a role by calling for calm, supporting the mediation work of domestic leaders and applying pressure on the parties to refrain from violence.

Also, of the utmost importance is how international and multilateral partners can support the next administration in addressing rampant insecurity, corruption and unemployment in addition to the longstanding challenges of security sector and judicial reform.

In an example of how this would look in practice, the U.S. government has worked to secure a truce between the DRC armed forces and the M23 to allow elections to take place, and efforts should be made to extend this. The anticipated withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping mission and the East African Community’s regional peace operation will mean a larger challenge for the national armed forces to tackle insecurity. Moreover, a military solution alone will not be sufficient to prevent resumption of violence. International partners should be prepared to support Congolese policymakers and civil society over the long term, as solutions to these longer-term problems will require a sustained effort.

Wapoenje Dacruz Evora is a program officer for the Horn of Africa at USIP.

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