Date first published: 3/1/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political instability; political violence; civil unrest; internal conflict

On 30 December over 46 million voters were called upon to cast their ballot in historical elections that could, in theory, see the first-ever democratic transfer of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In reality, the prospects are dim.

Despite opposition claims of widespread irregularities, controversy surrounding the use of electronic voting machines – thousands of which were destroyed in a mysterious fire in Kinshasa on 13 December – and the postponement of voting in several opposition strongholds until March 2019, observers from the Southern African Development Community deemed that polling ‘went reasonably well’. EU and US election monitors, having harshly criticised previous elections in 2006 and 2011, were not invited to observe.

Indeed, election day itself was relatively peaceful. But the electoral authorities’ actions in the two years leading up to the vote have done little to inspire confidence in the credibility of the results, which are not expected before 13 January. A shutdown of internet and SMS services in early January provided further fodder for rumours of rigging.

That the polls took place at all was not a matter of course. Elections were originally due to be held in 2016, when Joseph Kabila’s second term as president ended. Having repeatedly delayed a vote on his succession, Kabila eventually gave in to mounting domestic and regional pressure and at the last minute picked former interior minister and secretary-general of his PPRD party Emmanuel Shadary as the presidential candidate for the government coalition.

That decision marked a change of tactic, not a change of heart, however. On the surface, Shadary, relatively unknown prior to nomination and lacking his own strong constituency, seems an odd choice. Independent polls show that in a fair vote, Shadary would not have stood a chance against opponents Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi. But arguably a fair vote was never in Kabila’s plans.

Shadary’s redeeming quality is his – thus far – unwavering loyalty to Kabila. In a rare interview with journalists in December, Kabila confirmed what many had feared all along, namely that Shadary is but a placeholder until Kabila, who will continue to wield significant political power as PPRD party president, returns to the presidency in 2023.

Unsurprisingly, trust in the independent national electoral commission (CENI) is low. Seen as too close for comfort to the ruling party, almost two-thirds of respondents in a pre-election survey expressed a lack of faith in CENI to carry out credible polls. The Constitutional Court, which has the ultimate say in any potential electoral disputes, is largely staffed with pro-regime figures, as are security services.

However, Kabila may have underestimated the extent of popular rage. Elections in the DRC are never peaceful, but the stakes this time around are particularly high. Unlike previous elections, when Kabila could still count on a sizeable support base, the electorate is largely united by its overwhelming opposition to Kabila and his cabal. With over sixty per cent of voters saying they would not accept a Shadary victory, unrest is on the horizon. A prolonged period of uncertainty risks further destabilising the DRC’s volatile eastern provinces, reversing what little gains have been made since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003. Whether Shadary -and with him his mentor Joseph Kabila – will manage to weather the storm that is brewing remains to be seen.