DR Congo ready for democracy?

29 October 2011 - 11:09 By Sapa-dpa
The national flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The national flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

With less than five weeks to go before the Democratic Republic of the Congo votes in key presidential and parliamentary elections, observers warn the country is ill prepared, with some doubting whether polling can go ahead at all.

"There are serious threats to holding the election on November 28 that must be addressed now," said David Pottie, an associate director at the Carter Center, which is observing the vote in the resource-rich Central African country.

The election is seen as crucial for peace in the DR Congo, as it strives to recover from a civil war that left 5 million dead. There are pockets of lingering violence, especially in the east, where rape is endemic and women live in constant fear of rampaging militia-members.

These will be the country's second elections since independence in 1960, but the first to be organised domestically. The last vote in 2006 largely went smoothly under the eye of the United Nations, thanks to the massive international effort to make them happen.

The UN Security Council called this week for "credible and peaceful elections" but said "the country's government bore the primary responsibility to ensure that the polls are above reproach."

Jean-Robert Efalema with OMEC, a group that monitors the country's media, warned that as polling day neared, there was increasing suppression of views that were not in line with the ruling party's stance.

"There is a lot of political agitation, because the elections are not very well prepared," Efalema said in an interview with dpa.

So far, the electoral commission (CENI) has not announced where polling booths will be stationed or how they will be secured - a Herculean effort, as DR Congo is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa by area.

Neither ballot boxes nor voting slips are yet ready, and there is no plan on how to get them to the polling stations, once those are established. The country's infrastructure is in a terrible state, and a 50-kilometre journey can take half a day in a 4x4 truck.

There is as yet no decision on counting the votes, with civil society groups worried that, no matter the outcome, if the vote is not respected the country could find itself at war again.

War broke out in the DR Congo in 1998 and drew in seven other nations and countless militia groups.

Although officially declared over in 2003, the fighting has not finally ended. The conflict is continued by militias who function as ethnically-oriented armed gangs, and is in part fuelled by the country's mineral resources, including coltan, a crucial component of mobile telephones and video games.

"Who will win the elections? There is one thing of which I am clearly certain, and that is that I will not lose them," says President Joseph Kabila.

The incumbent will face 10 contenders. A total of 18,386 candidates will vie for 500 parliamentary seats, according to the limited information released by CENI.

With increasing reports of violence - including police clampdowns on political rallies - there is deep concern that a disorganised election process could spell doom for the country.

With hundreds of thousands of people said to be illegally registered to vote, holding a clean election will be a serious challenge.

"If the party in power wins, there will be violence. If the opposition wins, there will be violence," says one DR Congo political analyst from Kinshasa, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If the vote is delayed, that too can create anarchy, as some opposition groups say they will not recognise Kabila's presidency after December 6, when his term ends. Any postponement, the Carter Center said, would have to be agreed on by all parties.

The approximately 150 political parties are often subject to criticism.

Vote buying is common and the high cost of running even a clean campaign means the elites battle for office while the country's majority, the under-educated rural poor, have little input.

"The parties give people money, T-shirts or food to vote for them. The opposition and the ruling party - it is all the same. People do not vote for a good reason. When you vote for clothes, that is not a good reason," says Leonnie Kandolo, who works with CAFCO, a women's network.

Kandolo is particularly concerned about the safety of women on election day, warning that unless the government offers clear security protocols, many might stay home.

"Militias roam around, and in Congo we still have a big problem of rape. So women are very afraid," she told dpa. As few people are punished for sexual violence, impunity is rife, and even government soldiers are often accused of rape.

With Kabila talking of ending the mandate of the 19,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the country, women worry that soon no one will stand between them and unaccountable armed men. Should political violence erupt, their safety would be even further eroded.